There are millions of people who honestly believe that we must choose between individualism or socialism. This is like saying, “You either love your family or you hate your family.” Can anyone make the case that these two values are mutually exclusive? This is essentially what Ayn Rand attempted to do.
Although she was not the originator of ethical egoism, she wrote as if that were the case and many of her devotees seem to believe it. The association between her and this concept is so strong that it would not be wildly inaccurate to say that she “owns it”, like Jimi Hendrix “owns” that Watchtower song.
It would be easy enough to just point out that the top ten economies on this planet are all mixed economies, that is, a combination of public and private institutions. However, that would merely be an argument from evidence. I want to go to the root of the problem, logic. I have witnessed the best minds of my generation, continuously befuddled by the implications of absolute individualism, so I offer this as a light at the end of the tunnel.
When you hear or read such phrases as: “Big government, personal responsibility, America, free market, liberty, or tyranny of the majority,” you are likely observing the symptoms of someone who has been infected by the Ayn Rand thought virus. That is to say, they have been convinced either directly or indirectly that the only value worthy of consideration in issues of politics or ethics is the value of the individual.
Many intuitively know that this is a mistake, but they fail to notice why the case must be made, before progressing through some argument on policy. It is like arguing for moderation in candy consumption with someone who believes in the Great Pumpkin. You are not going to get anywhere!
Ayn Rand claimed, in her book, The Virtue Of Selfishness, that “The foundation of all ethics is the survival of the individual.” It seems like a good assumption. How could it possibly be wrong? Because, everyone I have ever met, also values the survival of others. That is why people give their time and sometimes their lives for a cause. It is because they recognize that other people are real and have a real value that is independent of their own value. Of, course this does not mean that the value of others necessarily diminishes ours. It means that you don’t have to create an exclusive barrier between self and other. That would be, what is known in logic as a false dilemma.As Rand framed it, you are either an egoist or an altruist.
No combinations can ever be possible. In order for this to be true (consistent), those who suffer from Rand-itis redefine all acts of altruism, from big tips to taking a bullet for someone, as egoism in disguise. No one actually does anything for the benefit of someone else. They are really just doing it because it makes them feel good inside. Yes, there is really no such thing as altruism after all! And now we have come full circle.
They also will sometimes, curiously proclaim that there is no such thing as ‘society’, it’s really just the sum of individuals. This is just poppycock! It is like saying there is no such thing as music. It is merely a collection of individual notes. Or, there are no such things as cities. They are only a collection of individual buildings with an artificial boundary. Well then there are no such things as categories, including the synergistic activity of cells that we refer to as individual human beings.
Virtually everything that expels from the minds of neo-conservatives implies this false dilemma between egoism and altruism. This is all you need to be aware of. The next time you are subjecting yourself to the rhetoric of neo-cons, whether it’s for sh*ts and/or giggles, try to see if you can spot the implied false dilemma. It’s not that hard.
Steve Spears is a guest blogger with Ring of Fire.