I am a believer in synchronicity. You hear a word for the first time, and suddenly you find it everywhere. A song from the 80’s pops into your head, and the next day some disc jockey on WBLM pulls it up from the archives for the first time in two years. You quote a line from a movie, and later that night the exact movie is playing on your favorite cable station. A political discussion on my blog leads to the topic of Ayn Rand (see previous posts and comments) and two days later there is an article about her in the NEW YORK TIMES.
Bear in mind, that I do not claim to be a philosopher. I am only discussing here what I’ve understood of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, not that I’m an expert. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who would love to point out each and every instance of my “wrong-thinking” on this, and I welcome them to do so. Let’s learn together. So here goes:
I used to be a huge Rand fan. I read THE FOUNTAINHEAD and was intrigued. I read ATLAS SHRUGGED, and I was convinced–for a time. Rand’s Libertarian vision was so simple, so rational. Let everyone start out with the gifts they are given, let each person do with those gifts what they will, and let each person reap the consequences (re: profit or loss) of his/her own actions with no interference by society or government. Anything less than this total freedom, in Rand’s philosophy, was evil–a set of shackles binding the individual from reaching his or her personal potential.
For awhile I considered myself a Libertarian, and I still find some Libertarian arguments compelling. However, what I saw in the world over the ensuing years didn’t exactly fit with the neatly-structured plotline of ATLAS SHRUGGED. Not every community-financed venture devolved into corruption and ruin. Not every capitalistic venture shone as a beacon of pure light and fair profit. While it may be possible to claim that some socialists are “thugs” who want to take your money and empower themselves and enslave you, it also seems to me that there are plenty of capitalists “thugs” out there who don’t play by the rules and destroy the competition unfairly or at a huge cost to human and environmental health in order to empower themselves and enslave many.
Rand’s argument against social welfare was that nobody should force an individual to pay for the life of someone else. If you valued someone who needed help, then you could choose to help them. Rational, right? For some reason, though, when it came time to vote on whether or not to enact social welfare programs, a majority of people in our country voted in favor, especially in the years of the Great Depression and again in the 1960’s. Why? Were they just ignorant and stupid? Duped by evil, corrupt, socialist boogeymen? Did they simply see a way to get something they hadn’t earned?
(This was a big idea with Rand. That people in the lower income brackets vote to take from the higher income brackets, but then in turn the even lower income brackets vote to take from them in a downward spiral until all the wealth and resources have been squandered in the hands of the least-common-denominator.)
On the other hand, perhaps a majority of people looked out and saw poverty and despair and lack of hope. They saw power and wealth concentrated in the hands of a few who used their power and wealth to stack the deck, to bend or create rules that benefited ONLY those with power and wealth at their disposal. Americans, as a society, decided something had to be done to give hope and comfort and a minimum level of security to those less “fortunate.” The majority (by electing representatives who supported social welfare legislation) decided to give the government the power to collect money for this purpose, and they created a “safety net.” Does this infringe on the rights and freedoms of the minority? You bet. If you believe “freedom” is the ideal which trumps all others, then of course you are miffed.
I like freedom, myself. I believe that in cases where it is difficult to decide what is right as a society (let’s not forget that we ARE a society, a State), it is better to err on the side of freedom and let each individual decide for themselves. However, there are times when we need to join together for the common good. How do we decide, as a society comprised on individuals with individual beliefs, what those times are?
We are a respresentative form of government. We vote for representatives who are supposed to function within the legislative body as the voice of the people. The representatives debate and decide how to act. (Part of our problem is that we individuals feel that our representatives aren’t speaking for us as much as they are speaking for other interests) In any case, for now, the people seem to be electing representatives who are NOT Libertarian-minded. Again, this is majority rules. Whoever gets the most votes, wins. Not everyone is going to be satisfied with the outcome.
The ultimate battlefield of philosophy is the street, the home, the blogs, the editorial pages of the newspaper, wherever individuals meet and talk and discuss. IF at some time the Liberatarian philosophy wins the battle for our hearts, minds, and votes, we will elect representatives who will voice this choice within the legislative body. It’s how our government was set up. There will never be a time when everyone is happy with the way things are. There is no perfect form of government. There is no perfect society.
At the end of ATLAS SHRUGGED, the capitalists of the world have “gone on strike” and have withdrawn from society. They have begun their own society in a hidden place in the mountains. They are digging ore for steel. They are building railroads. They are living the Libertarian ideal. But I am left wondering this: what happens when they run out of ore? What is happening in the chaotic outer world? Are small communities of individuals banding together and finding alternative lifestyles? Will the Galtians make swords and bullets from their steel and invade these communities in order to get to their resources? Or will they attempt to pay for the resources? What if some communities decide not to sell? Where does it end?
After talking with one of my Libertarian-minded friends this week, I kept thinking about the depressing reality that because the majority votes one way, the minority are obliged to go along (or go to jail). I agreed that it didn’t really seem fair. I mean, if you don’t want to send you kids to public school, you don’t recognize the value of education for the masses, you’d rather starve than go on food stamps, you don’t want someone else to pay for your health care, you’d rather save money for retirement rather than participate in Social Security, you don’t care about using the public library, or the fire department, or the police department–then why should you be forced to pay for these things?
So I thought, what if we simply allowed individuals to “opt-out” of society? How would that work? I can imagine a bunch of different scenarios, but I’d like to get some input from my readers. What do you think? Could something like that work? What if we just said, “Okay, go ahead.” Would we “opted-outs” be allowed employment by businesses operating within the system? And would those businesses be able to pay us whatever they wanted, with no regard for minimum wage and other labor laws? If we weren’t required to pay property taxes, would we also give up the services of the fire, police, and ambulance departments? What about road and bridge repair? Maybe we “opted-outs” would still pay a vehicle registration fee in order to pay their fair share of the roads we use. We could perhaps grow whatever “illegal” plants we wanted, but those within the system who bought it could be prosecuted.
What are some other areas that would need to be addressed? Could “opted-outs” change their minds at some point and re-enter the system? I think it would have to cost a stiff penalty because I could see people changing their minds only when the money ran out, a health issue came up, or some other need reared its ugly head. It’s like health insurance. When you are healthy, it seems like a waste of money. When you are really sick, it looks alot like salvation.
If we could, would we really chose to live without a safety net? Or would we only chose it if EVERYONE had to fly on that same trapeze? Let me know. I’m really curious.