Some Free-form Thoughts on Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and Other Big Ideas
I’m reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged for the first time. This is after spending decades ignoring it because of its reputation, which I’m ashamed of at this point.
To reject something is fine, but to reject it because of someone else’s reasons is repugnant.
Anyway, I’m finally reading it, and I’m really enjoying it. I’d say my pleasure in it comes from one part as a book and three parts as philosophy.
But the main thing I keep getting hit with is not how right the philosophy is, but how almost right it is. This is tremendously important.
I’m struck by the urge not to explain how true her philosophy is, but the nature of where it fails and breaks. That’s both more interesting and more useful than simply restating its merits.
We need to do this with every good thing.
Marxism is brilliant. Adam Smith’s Capitalism is brilliant. Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is brilliant. And so is Roddenberry’s vision of the world we could live in.
What we don’t spend enough time doing is Moral Threat Modeling, where we take an ideological system and run it through multiple scenarios to see where it fails.
Communism would be amazing if humans were wired to accept it. We’re not, so it turns out to be a fucking nightmare every time we try it.
Capitalism is brilliant at harnessing human ambition and creating prosperity for others as exhaust. But it fails when the head of the cigarette company monopoly buys a bunch of television companies to create tobacco ads that target kids.
Rand’s Objectivism fails much like Capitalism does, i.e., at the extreme of its success. It has within it an assumption that the winners will be good actors, just as Communism includes the assumption that people will be happy with everyone getting the same regardless of their contribution.
Capitalism and Objectivism don’t have built-in controls for psychopathic monopolists who would smash millions against the rocks just to gain an inch over his competitors. And Communism clearly creates an oligarchy that profits while the masses suffer, just as we see in today’s (and yesterday’s) China and Russia.
But here’s the thing: these all have wonderful properties, which is why they’ve succeeded as memes.
Capitalism harnesses human ambition and creativity to create things that didn’t exist before. It’s fucking glorious. And say what you want about it, but it’s the reason there are so many new rich people in China today. That’s Capitalism that did that.
Communism points out that it’s not ok for there to be two extreme classes, with clear lines between them, where the rich take advantage of and shit upon the poor—especially when it’s the poor who are doing all the real work. Well, yeah! 100% That’s not ok. And we can see this thread of objection in every populist uprising, including those coming from the right in today’s politics.
But the solution to that is not to slide the slider towards pure Capitalism or pure Communism. The pure forms don’t work.
What we need is a hybrid, but implementing a hybrid correctly requires that you deeply understand first principles.
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Basically, we need to do a few things:
Harvest and incentivize human responsibility, ambition, and creativity in everyone
Look for places where people are less able to produce those things
Make policy changes that help them to do so, i.e., lifting everyone through education, healthcare, etc.
Broadcast this policy to promote the most healthy behaviors in everyone
So we maintain a hybrid policy. We simultaneously say,
And this will encourage maximum output from everyone. Plus,
That’s the message. That’s the path. “This is the way.”
This is the hybrid of Capitalism, Communism, and Objectivism that we need.
The good parts of all these systems are…um…good. And the bad parts are horrific.
We’re smart enough to know the difference and build composites that work for us, and that is what we must do.