George Monbiot, Please Understand Objectivism Before Criticizing It.
Originally published on Mises Canada
Philosophies need to be challenged. No philosophy has escaped criticism and no philosophy should escape it. One should never accept or reject an idea at face value; it must be dissected, analyzed and debated before conclusions are drawn. If the idea is unclear or inconsistent, this process becomes difficult, giving way to misinterpretation. Unfortunately, this happens to even the clearest ideas. In these cases, one has to wonder whether this occurs from an honest lack of understanding or if misinterpretation is a choice made in order to compliment an existing set of beliefs.
George Monbiot’s article “How Ayn Rand Became the New Right’s Version of Marx“opens by describing her philosophy of Objectivism as “the ugliest philosophy the postwar era has produced.” Yet when you read his reasons behind his name-calling, you wonder whether he has actually read any of her books. Instead of critiquing Ayn Rand’s ideas, he misinterprets them and critiques something else entirely. He invokes a typical straw man rather than delve into the core components of the philosophy. Any person who has taken the time to read Ayn Rand should be able to understand Objectivism as it is an uncomplicated, straightforward philosophy. Here is a quick breakdown of its main concepts.
Objectivism redefines morality. Morality is based on reason, not emotions or dogma. It states that it is not a virtue to sacrifice oneself for another. When objectivism condemns sacrifice, it condemns irrationality. Sacrifice isn’t helping a friend with their homework, or an old lady across the street; these things are rational choices that make us feel good. Sacrifice is marrying someone you do not love to please them, or working your neighbor’s field to help his family while your family starves. It is immoral to be a “sacrificial animal.” This does not mean people shouldn’t be thoughtful and help each other, it only means that others are not born entitled to your help (this of course excludes children as one makes the choice to bring them into existence).
It is moral to act in rational self-interest. The individual is born with one responsibility: himself. You are not born to serve others, and others are not born to serve you. You are born entitled to achieve your own happiness; others are not entitled to rely on you to achieve theirs. It is moral to peruse things for your own benefit, as long as you do not impede on the rights of others to do the same. This is called the non-aggression principle. As long as you do not initiate force, you should be left to do what you wish.
Objectivism argues against rationalizing enslavement. Objectivism frees one to live by their own will, unchained from the wills of others. These ideas shake the foundations of religion, large government, post-modernism and collectivism. This direct endorsement of individual freedom has of course angered those who wish to keep people subservient and those who wish to live off of their fellow human beings.
George Monbiot accuses Ayn Rand’s philosophy of condemning empathy and compassion, when it only condemns sacrificing yourself for others. If Monbiot disagrees with this, he is entitled to his opinion, but he cannot extend his contempt to things Objectivism does not claim. He goes on to state that Objectivism maintains that the poor deserve to die. Not one of Ayn Rand’s books even alludes to this. In Atlas Shrugged, the poor working class is praised. They are described to be the victims of a growing, oppressive government. Their sufferings and deaths are a direct result of the crimes of Washington’s elite. Monbiot also states that Objectivism endorses the “unmediated power” for the rich. The entire story of Atlas Shrugged revolves around pointing out how detrimental things would become if we gave rich politicians unlimited power. This point is illustrated in the book’s train scene, something Monbiot too has chosen to misrepresent.
Kip Chalmers, one of “Washington’s boys” sits on a broken down train, outraged that he is being prevented from getting to where he needs to go. He insists that the broken down diesel engine be replaced with the only alternative at the given time; a coal-burning engine. The workers explain to him that there is a long tunnel ahead, which can only be entered by a diesel-powered train due to safety hazards. He threatens the train workers to do as they are told. At this point in the story, work is scarce and the workers who are lucky enough to have a job can’t afford to lose it. No one wants to be responsible for upsetting someone with government connections; everyone is living in fear. So the train is fixed with a coal-burning engine and sent on its way through the tunnel. Almost everyone suffocates and dies.
What about having “the teacher who taught children to be team players” and the “mother who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing,” die on the train? Maybe Monbiot has never heard of a metaphor before. Ayn Rand was not saying they deserved to die; she was illustrating that that these are the kind of ideas that lead to a society’s death. Should we thus conclude that any character who dies in any book means the author is implying they deserved it?
Predictably, Monbiot goes on to argue that Objectivism favours the “rich” over the “poor.” These terms are very naïve; people need to stop and think before using them. Conveniently, these loaded classifications are rarely defined. Who are these poor? Are they the oppressed majority of countries such as China, Cuba and North Korea? Are they the homeless of North America? Are they the welfare classes of England? Do they mean to claim that all these people are simply the “poor?” Is this not only extremely general but condescending? Should the benefit collector living in the comfortable government housing of Sweden be classified alongside with the starving orphan of Lesotho? Should the junkie who was born into abuse be classified alongside the idler who figured out that it’s easier to live off his peers than to work? Should the person who lost everything during an economic collapse be in the same category as the person who lost everything during a poker game?
And what about the rich? Who are these people we are told to distrust and hate? Are they bankers? Politicians? CEOs? Lobbyists? Heiresses? What about those who spent half their life with their noses in textbooks or their hands callused with work only to catch a break and profit from their efforts? What about doctors, business owners, entrepreneurs, artists, innovators, inventors, and columnists for the Guardian? Don’t these “rich” people outnumber the ones who gained their wealth by coercion? How can a philosophy favour or discriminate against such a grand diversity of individuals? It doesn’t. Monbiot once again oversteps his understanding of Objectivism.
Ayn Rand makes it clear what kind of people she praises and what kind of people she condemns. It is not rich vs. poor; it is creator vs. moocher, producer vs. parasite. In Atlas Shrugged, the biggest parasites are the government lobbyists, the career politicians, the people who got rich by coercion (Eugene Lawson, Tinky Holloway, Wesley Mouch). These people do not create anything; they live off the prosperity of the productive class while claiming to be superior in essence because they supposedly have no greed. This is illustrated in the novel by Hank Rearden’s family, specifically his brother, a man convinced to be entitled of Hank’s wealth because his work is non-profit. Objectivism holds that one has a right to be as charitable as they like but only with their own money. When charity is given by force, it is no longer charity but theft. Should I be allowed to take your car and give it to someone who doesn’t have a car? Is stealing justified if what you steal is selflessly given away? If your answer is yes, please email me your address and leave the key under the mat.
Hardworking individuals, rich, middle class or poor, do not deserve having their income stolen to support someone somewhere just because the government said so. They are the foundation of a thriving society and should not be punished for their achievements. This point is again made in Atlas Shrugged when a collectivist manufacturing company fails. When its workers begin being paid according to their need not skill, the company shuts down, turning everyone onto the street. The productive classes are the building blocks of societies and need to be respected, or at least, left alone.
Selfishness cannot be eliminated with preaching; it is in our nature to want to keep what we work for. People are selfish, independent of whether they are “poor” or “rich.” You may have noticed this if you have any friends or family. Objectivism embraces this instead of condemning it, arguing that greed and selfishness often drives people to create, thus injecting wealth into economies. People are also kind and empathetic by nature; something you may have also noticed if you have friends or family. Charity by the choice of the individual is how we better the world, not by theft and redistribution of wealth by the government. Some of the wealthiest people on this planet are also the most charitable. Perhaps George Monbiot has only heard of one millionaire, Alan Greenspan.
You can’t hold Objectivism accountable for something a corrupt, flip-flopping individual does. Ayn Rand’s novels not only condemn but warn against such people. In fact, she personally saw right through Greenspan. In a documented conversation between herself and Nathaniel Braden, Ayn Rand asked “Do you think Alan might basically be a social climber?” Ayn Rand believed in free-market capitalism, not the crony capitalism Greenspan endorses.
Monbiot scathingly accuses Ayn Rand to be a hypocrite because she took Medicare and security benefits near the end of her life. Does this negate everything she stood for? Well, she also paid taxes all her life, so following that logic, her ideas were worthless to begin with. If one lives in a communist state but holds the ideas of private property yet does not own private property, does it mean they are contradicting their own ideas? Karl Marx gained wealth by playing the stock market, does this mean all his ideas are worthless? Ayn Rand had to comply with the “realities” of the American System. Of course she subscribed to these benefits, she had been forced to pay into them her entire life.
The most inaccurate claim Monbiot makes is that Objectivism has “failed spectacularly and catastrophically.” How can something be killed off before its time? If Monbiot wants us to take this claim seriously, he should provide evidence of a large decrease of State power in correlation with the popularity of Ayn Rand’s ideas.
Objectivism is an unpracticed philosophy in America. America today consists of subsidizations, government created monopolies, high taxes, bail outs, huge violations of property and privacy rights, media censorship, manipulation of currency, and constant initiation of force against peaceful citizens and countries. These are hardly the teachings of Objectivism. Ayn Rand’s writings have accurately predicted what would become of capitalism if the government was to continue to grow. The world we live in today is an accurate reflection of the world John Galt was forced to escape in Atlas Shrugged.
“When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion – when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing – when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors – when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you – when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice – you may know that your society is doomed.”-Ayn Rand
Objectivism did not fail; objectivism is part of the reason why America prospered and grew in the first place. The unrestrained accomplishments of the individual made America what it was. It was not built on the ideas of collectivism, or with the help of a large government. Objectivist ideas were formed in America years before Ayn Rand recognized them. She moved from Russia to escape the chains of collective thought and ended up identifying exactly what made America great; individual freedom.