Debunking Ayn Rand and Her Capitalist Hero John Galt
A tremendous amount of confusion seems to be taking place among fans of Ayn Rand and the entire concept of libertarianism these days. Ayn Rand, an ideologue who came to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s with her books The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, actively advocated for freedom, individual rights, and capitalism, as we knew them in those times. Today, many of her followers use her arguments to uphold political and social systems that would have been foreign to Rand at the time. These arguments often come across, therefore, as anachronistic and out of touch with her teachings. This article discusses the myths we carry forward today about Ayn Rand and her ficticious Atlas Shrugged hero, John Galt.
Ayn Rand in her time promoted self-interest and laissez-faire capitalism as we understood them at the time. Self-interest, she argued, was a rational byproduct of being human and not necessarily something we were aiming for. Human beings by our very nature looked out for our own interests. It is a matter of survival. Attempting to create a society of altruism, the concept of people putting others’ needs before their own, is a noble idea, but not one that we can manipulate or physically force people to hold. And if we do manipulate or force, then, once again, we are fighting against people’s self-interest, which goes against human nature.
Rand was arguing that, as people are driven by their self-interest, we should create societies around that natural course. Enter laissez-faire capitalism. The argument then, is that when people act truly in their own self-interest, they are also doing what is good for society.
For example, if someone eats well, exercises, works hard to make enough money to support him or herself, cares for their young, keep their home and yard clean, all of these activities are in their own self-interest but also benefit society at large. If everyone simply cared for him or herself and then taught their children to do the same, we would have a happy and productive society.
Laissez-faire capitalism then was, originally, merely an extension of that self-interest. If we build societies around people who care for themselves and act in their own self-interest, then we could, ostensibly, have a strong, productive society. Laissez-faire is a French expression that roughly translates to “let them do.” It’s a kind of as you will concept. It is also important to note that capitalism and laissez-faire capitalism are economic structures, not social ones. There is a distinct difference between saying let people live how they will and saying let people pay, spend, and make money as they will.
Still, in a truly free-market economic system, which is the idea behind laissez-faire, we would allow businesses to run themselves, banks to run themselves, and people to live their lives as they will.
In a truly free market, as Ayn Rand argued for, we would see banks fail and businesses fail who did not run themselves efficiently. Wages would be set by the market, and people who wanted higher wages would simply go work for a competing business. Businesses would have to compete for labor and compete for capital.
It is not, entirely, a bad idea.
The Modern Reality
The problem with today’s Ayn Rand followers (Randists) is that they do not acknowledge the fact that businesses and banks are not in a free market system today. They do indeed receive huge government bailouts in the form of subsidies. Farmers receive subsidies for corn and beef our markets do not demand. Oil companies receive government subsidies rather than allowing the market to move progressively into renewable energy and allowing oil companies to disappear into history. The automobile industry was bailed out to the tune of billions of dollars in taxpayer dollars. The military-industrial complex is kept alive and well with tanks and weaponry that will never see a day of combat. The modern reality is that these zombie companies exist and are even acknowledged by the Federal Reserve System, and certain companies are even dubbed ‘Too big to fail’. And the libertarians, for the most part, do not rail against these government actions.
Instead, they argue against a minimum wage and for a free market for business that has never truly existed.
Why the Free Market Cannot Exist
In truth, a free market cannot exist because of the lack of information in the United States and most of the western world. In a free market, the people would be able to rely on a free press to tell them which companies are corrupt, which treat their workers well, and which are worthy of their hard-earned dollars.
Workers would be free to unionize and collectively bargain with their companies.
Companies would not have more power than the people.
That is a free market.
Equality would not be impeded. Sure, equality may not necessarily be promoted by the government, but businesses would not be free to harm the people as they are today. In a truly free market society, the government would have to intervene to ensure a free market, not to help those who have more money and ignore those who cannot pay for lobbyists to their cause. That is our sad reality today.
Jon Galt and Social Security Hypocrisy
In the end, Ayn Rand promoted objectivism, rationalism, and what we think of today as libertarianism through her fictional champion, John Galt. But in the end, rationalism seems to be able to rationalize whatever we want, doesn’t it?
Ayn Rand argued extensively against social welfare, but at the end of her life, she accepted social security checks. She actually spoke to this, saying that it is okay to accept social security checks even after arguing against them as long as you see those checks as restitution and not welfare.
So, it seems, as long as you can shift your beliefs and argue for them “rationally,” you can pretty much argue for or against anything. Next week, we take a look at the Anti-Work movement and The Great Resignation, and how those tie into these concepts of capitalism and laissez-faire. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter or like our Facebook page to stay tuned.
Looking for more, consider watching this short animated series as part of ‘We The Economy’ documentary series that we covered back when Huge Thinking first launched in 2015.