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Paradox25's avatar

Can an objectivist be a collectivist, or vice versa?

Asked by Paradox25 (8975 points ) November 25th, 2012

Why is it that objectivists (pertaining to Ayn Rand objectivism) believe that the central tenants of her philosophy, including the pursuit of individual happiness and individual rights, could be best achieved through a laissez-faire capitalist economic system? Can’t one support the idea of individual rights/happiness and support a social market economy, or even socialism?

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7 Answers

jrpowell's avatar

Isn’t that simply Socialism? Or I am not understanding you.

Bill1939's avatar

I believe she had an unwarranted faith in unfettered freedom to pursue one’s interest, believing that in this way the greater good will be achieved. However, human instinct promotes selfishness without regard to fairness. By seeking power to control others, skewing the game in favor of the few, results in an excessive exploitation of both the environment and those who are dependent upon their labors to survive with minimal resources. This will lead to the eventual collapse of a civilized society.

elbanditoroso's avatar

Do you mean “objectivist”? Objectionist is a whole different ball game.

I believe that Rand thought that collectivism was essentially incompatible with objectivism. Collectivism (or what we call socialism, today), was submitting the personal need and ability TO the collective. Objectivism was largely based on the individual’s merit, worth, and view allowed to excel or increase to the highest degree.

These seem to be fundamentally at odds.

ETpro's avatar

Ayn Rand was brilliant and had confidence that if her ideal of laissez-faire capitalism were instituted, she would be one of the few who profited from it, she’d be king queen of the mountain. She was, in that respect, a sociopathic personality, seeking only her own pleasure and success and completely unconcerned with who got hurt by her pursuit. Perhaps Rand saw no problem in this, as she may not have felt a drive to kill her neighbors and steal what they had that would give her pleasure. Unfortunately, other sociopaths will do just that if not restrained. There do have to be limits on individual freedom, or civilization and all we gain from it breaks down.

We also know that a collectivist society can work to secure a decent life for all, but this method has its problems as well. The first record we have of such a collectivist society working is in the Bible. Acts 2:44–47, “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

The fly in that ointment is the same sociopathic greed that leads some to rape and pillage. Note that the Apostle Paul had to write to the communal church in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, reminding them, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’ ” We can draw from that admonition that some had lapsed into indolence, letting others work to support them so they could devote all their time to prayer. Such behavior is hardly respectful of one’s brother, and prayer is a poor substitute for living as if one believes in brotherly love.

There is a sweet spot lying between pure laissez-faire capitalism and total socialism. Some things are better done collectively. Defense, mass transportation, law enforcement, fire protection, health insurance and retirement insurance are examples. Other things, such as innovation, services, manufacturing and marketing, are much better done within the pressures and control exerted by a reasonably regulated free market.

I say reasonably regulated because sociopaths are around in free markets as well as socialist ones. The most certain path to profit in a free market is vulture capitalism. Buy up a corporation, raid its pension fund, borrow massive amounts of cash, lay off all R&D personnel and cancel any actions aimed at future profits. For the short term, the balance sheet will suddenly go through the stratosphere. The stock shoots up, and that’s when the vulture capitalist sells all his shares, pockets the pension fund and borrowed cash, and leaves the bankruptcy court to sort out the damage while he moves on to the next conquest.

Reason must drive most members of society before the real sweet spot between free-market capitalism and socialism can be realized. So long as a large portion of the society is still driven about by the unconscious forces that Freud so brilliantly documented in Totem and Taboo and further in The Future of an Illusion, society must be ordered by rules that compel individuals to act in conflict with the illusions and neuroses that motivate them without their conscious knowledge.

lifeflame's avatar

You also have to understand that Ayn Rand emigrated to the US from Russia when she was 20. I suspect that her philosophy grew out of a reaction against the collective political-economic system she experienced in her early life.

SavoirFaire's avatar

I’m not sure that’s the best way of representing the central tenets of Rand’s view. Yes, individual happiness and individual rights are important to her; but like all moral philosophers, she has a particular view of what constitutes these things. We tend to talk about happiness and rights as if there is some clear consensus on exactly what these things involve. This is not the case, however, and so we must specify.

Rand does not take happiness to be merely an emotion or a state of mind—e.g., a subjective feeling of joy or contentment—but rather a state of being. A happy life is a successful life, but this raises the question of what counts as success. Rand’s view puts quite a bit of emphasis on freedom, independence, and self-reliance. Moreover, she sees these as very tightly related to each other.

Rand believes that we have only two options: egoism or altruism. The former entails concern for own interests without regard for the interests of others (except insofar as promoting their interests promotes our own), while the latter entails concern for the interests of others without regard for our own interests (except insofar as promoting our own interests promotes the interests of others).*

Given these choices, Rand opts for egoism. The life she identifies as altruistic is contrary to happiness. One cannot live a successful life, or any life at all that recognizes our value as human beings, if our sole pursuit is the good of others. We’d be better off dead than living that way, and so we must reject such a life as being fundamentally inconsistent with the purpose of living and the nobility of a human being. It cannot possibly be the correct way to live.**

This might help us to see, then, why Rand takes the particular stand she does with regard to collectivism. We again are told there are two options: laissez-faire capitalism and collectivism. Collectivism requires us to be concerned with the interests of others even when promoting their interests does not promote our own. Yet if our only choices are egoism or altruism, then collectivism must be a form of altruism. Thus if altruism is to be rejected, so too must collectivism be rejected (and laissez-faire capitalism is to be accepted).

We can also look at collectivism from the perspective of individual rights. The members of a collective take on certain duties to one another, and thus each member can demand certain things from one another. To the extent that we are beholden to others, however, we are not free. Moreover, collectivism leads us to be mutually interdependent, which further reduces our freedom (if I cannot live without you, I am not truly free of you). Here, then, we see how freedom, independence, and self-reliance converge.***

If one were to conceptualize individual happiness and individual rights differently than Rand—and there is a long and complicated debate over the proper way to conceptualize these things—then one might think that collectivism is (or could be made) consistent with them. Quite a lot depends on how demanding we are going to be of these concepts. Freedom might be more complicated than simply a lack of duties. Independence might not require such radical self-reliance. In any case, the conversation is far from over.

* This can all be found in the introduction to her book The Virtue of Selfishness. One of the most common criticisms of Rand is that she is operating on a false dilemma right from the start. As the purpose of this post is to explain Rand rather than critique her, however, I will leave that to the side for now. Know, however, that you are not alone if you think these options do not seem to exhaust the possibilities.

** Note that while Randians often take themselves to be saying something innovative or explosive in presenting this argument, virtually no one actually disagrees that we must reject this version of altruism. As W.D. Hudson observed: “Is it not significant that those who advocate self-sacrifice usually present it as a path to self-realization? [...] If a man used moral language to commend not doing whatever would give rise to the flourishing of man as what he took man to be, then we should consider him irrational.”

*** Again, this all depends on specific definitions of these notions. All rights, even the individual rights promoted by Rand, confer duties of non-interference on others. Why do these duties not diminish our freedom in morally objectionable ways? What about when the candidates I vote for do not win their elections? There is also the question of how objectionable a loss of freedom is if it is one we willingly take on, such as when we form a social contract for mutual protection and benefit.

Paradox25's avatar

I screwed up on the way I wanted to ask this question, but I’ve edited it. I really wanted to know why objectivists (Ayn Rand objectivists) think that Ayn Rand’s love of a free market economy, and dislike of government programs that help people, is the best way to support individual rights and happiness. Some of these responses already tackled this and yes, I meant objectivist.

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