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Hurricane of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Glenn Beck, and Disaster Response

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Living in New York City, I had a front row seat to the devastation that was Hurricane Sandy. I was one of the luckier residents of the city but thousands are still without power or stuck in flood-drenched areas. It may be several days before things get back to normal. The only ray of sunshine has been the exemplary response by the city, the state, and the federal government, to this disaster. From precautionary measures and pre-emptive warnings to the heroic response by emergency service crews throughout the long night, lives have surely been saved and New Yorkers protected from an even grimmer fate.

A big thank you to all our political leaders who made this possible.

But this piece is not about politics, Paul Ryan's budget plan which advocates slashing funding for federal emergency services, or even about President Obama's deft handling of this crisis. It is about a highly dysfunctional philosophy that millions in America live by - the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand - and which we need to reject once and for all. The best way to illustrate just how myopic, and indeed dangerous, this philosophy is, let us imagine how Rand and one of her current torch-bearers, Glenn Beck, would likely have responded to Hurricane Sandy had they been in charge (ironically, Beck has flip-flopped on Rand and considers her selfish, but given his own every-man-for-himself philosophy, that is pretty rich).

In an infamous 2010 radio interview, Beck passionately defended a fire department in Obion County, Tennessee that let a man's home burn to the ground because he had not paid a $75 municipal fee ahead of time. If we were to apply that same logic to Sandy, only those New Yorkers who had paid for the privilege in advance would have been protected from fires, flooding, falling cranes, or other life threatening incidents, and much more tragedy would have ensued. Instead, unlike the Obion County fire department's Darwinian stance and Beck's endorsement of it, there was not a single soul in New York City who did not have access to emergency help last night, no matter who they were, how much they paid in taxes, where they were from, what God they worshipped (or not), or anything else. Which approach do you think is more civilized?

This obviously comes straight out of the pages of Rand's world, in which humans are "pay for play" and any service provided for free is irrational and immoral since it violates the tenet of self-interest. To help others without being compensated runs against her fundamentalist capitalist philosophy, which favors profit over humanity and cold logic over compassion. Funnily enough, as I listened to Mayor Bloomberg report on the damage from the storm and the Herculean efforts under way to help stranded citizens, I was reminded that it is not self-interest that is at fault (since Bloomberg himself is a vocal advocate of private enterprise) but the lopsided version of this concept that is personified by people like Ayn Rand and Glenn Beck. In other words, it is not America that does not have a heart but these particular individuals and those who follow their beliefs blindly.

There is no reason that self-interest cannot co-exist with a common interest, why the private sector cannot co-exist with effective government, why in times of crisis our citizens cannot become the beneficiaries of services they have not paid for directly, and why we cannot be both a profit-seeking people and a charitable one. No reason, of course, except for fanatical ideology, demagogues who make a lot of money and gain fame by propagating extremist ideas, and pure, single-minded selfishness.

In our democracy, rights come with responsibilities, and these include the responsibility to help those Americans in need, regardless of whether it is logical or not. Rand and Beck only cover one part of this critical equation, namely the right to pursue personal happiness, but slyly ignore the rest. Why? Because extreme ideas sell much better than moderate ones, because a Russian immigrant can generate controversy by challenging the values of her adopted country, and because it is easy to ignore the flames when it is someone else's home on fire.

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.

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