Monday, September 22, 2014

Can Ayn Rand's objectivism work now? "Pay your bills" and then "Pay your dues"

Recently, I saw Part III of the movie series “Atlas Shrugged” (Movie reviews Sept. 20), and I guess I got a refresher on libertarian philosophy, personal autonomy, and absolute fidelity to personal responsibility.  These were paramount ideas when I wrote my first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book in 1997.  Can I remain faithful to them? Will Ayn Rand’s secular objectivism always work?
In the film, the hero John Galt defiantly promises never to serve the interest of someone other than himself against his will and free choice, and claims he will never expect anyone else to serve his interests.
One  problem with “someone like me”, with some unusual talents that tend to encourage personal self-promotion (they started with music and piano) but also some atypical liabilities (in physical competitiveness) is that I may believe I am “paying my bills” and exercising “personal responsibility”, but actually use hidden dependencies on the underpaid, sacrificial labor of others. An example is when I buy many imports made with quasi-slave “dorm labor”.   Although I did a good job of saving during my main tract IT career (through 2001), much of my asset base is “inherited”, definitely a source of scorn from the Left.
John Galt arguably had less of the hidden dependency problem because he could create much more of his own “wealth” with his own hands. 
There is, in a real world, a practical necessity to take care of other people, outside of the scope of our “choices”, especially “choosing” to engage in heterosexual intercourse and procreate children.  As people live longer and there are fewer children, many more of us are learning about the responsibilities of taking care of our parents.  But admittedly, John Galt would just build his parents a home in his Colorado Gulch, and since he is capable, doing so wouldn’t cost him anything.  It is easy for him to be generous, and he probably wants to be.  For most of us, it isn’t that easy.
The hidden dependency is serious, though.  It does feed a lot of inequality, which leads to resentment and instability.  It may lead to gross global unfairness, for example, in the way climate change can eventually affect lower income populations, who usually live on lower ground and in more precarious circumstances.  On the other hand, inequality necessarily follows from hyper-individualism, and individualism promotes innovation, which gradually raises living standards for everyone.  Without some self-interest, which has a flexible connection to the needs of others, people don't really get things done and (as in the movie or in Communist societies) things fall into disrepair and don't work. 
So, people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and many others (now like both Andraka brothers) innovate. They may not always seem as personally attentive as others, but it’s easier for them to take care of others without it really costing them anything.  In the “Smallville” series, teen Clark Kent is generous and kind in protecting others because it is easy for him to do so.  But when it does cost something, there is a real issue.

There’s another problem.  A liberal, democratic society says it has to find a place for everyone, because all human life is by definition sacred and valued.  I think we often openly violate this idea.  Look at how we handled the military draft in the 1960s, which tested the idea of “shared sacrifice” but then considered many people more expendable than others to become cannon fodder on infantry night patrols in Vietnam. In personal lives, we often take the position “he can do better than that” and view people in terms of whom they can attract. 

We’re in a world where we have a very split attitude about helping others.  We resist sales people and constant contacts by charities, because of abuse – and because we have become more “self-sufficient” and insular, a vicious cycle in a world that gets more dangerous as more people get left behind.  (Think how this feeds recruitment by radical Islam.)  At the same time, the media has never been more aggressive in pimping causes to get people actively involved in helping others, as illustrated by CNN Heroes.  And discussions about national service – Stanley McChrytal’s idea of one year from everyone 18 to 28, with the Franklin Project (Issues blog, Sept. 13, 2014), come up, and world conditions (Ebola, ISIS, etc) suggest that civilian service overseas could be more personally costly that military duty.

I could call this “pay your dues”.  There is something to the idea that if “everyone serves”, then everyone recognizes some degree of interdependence as inevitable.  That gives disadvantaged people more reason to believe that a democratic system can ‘work” for them.  That could improve stability and security. I can see this idea when I get emails from charities that ask if “can we count on you” as if they had the (bureaucratic) right to determine my own terms and service and manage my own priorities (and “hours” currency, like the world were one big intentional community). That drives me back to quoting John Galt, but I am not as capable as he is in defending my “right” to independence. 
There is a personal aspect to all of this, which gets controversial.   When someone like me sends out a message that I will remain emotionally “aloof” outside of the scope of “upward affiliation,” that suggests that it is OK for a lot of people “down the line” to be left out of meaningful relationships later in life.  People do see me as distant, inert, and non-reactive to need and interdependence (they call that “schizoid”).  If all of this is OK, then instability can increase.  Marriages work, at least in the world of social conservatism, because people see others doing it and believe that marriage is a necessity.  I become a big distraction (or detraction).  Marriage is predicated on the idea that passion and interest will survive if something happens to one of the partners, especially in service of others.  

In that regard, John Galt falls in love, in a way, with Dagny, who is not too certain she wants full commitment to his ideas.  But it is Dagny who saves him from the torture scene.  Without her, he can just become a casualty of the evil in the world like anyone else.  But for Galt, there can be no victims.  But life really can be taken away from us. 
There really is a big cognitive disconnect in our culture, and it gets divisive.  Our world has generally graduated to more libertarian ideals over the decades, as I predicted in the first  book.  The “right to privacy” has taken on a different tack from what it had 20 years ago, as public identity becomes much more open, double lives are discouraged and equality (especially in the LGBT area) is promoted.  But you have to be able to function a certain way as an individual in our society to tie into this.  It’s clear that a lot of low-income people, especially young males (often of color) do not, and become vulnerable to dogmatic, irrational ideologies that appear (to them) to create a more primitive moral baseline.  As long as too many of us remain aloof, this gets dangerous for all of us.  It’s ironic to see equality promoted in one part of the world, and aversion to physical, emotional and social cowardice in another heightened, at the same time.  I got caught in the middle. 

No comments: