Economics / Literature

Ayn Rand, Capitalism, and the Nature of Humanity

Recently I read a book called Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears.  Besides being a brilliant thriller, mystery, and drama which reduced me to an unnecessarily emotional state on public transit (on several occasions!), the novel is an ode to the beauty of high finance and corporations.  The author has real, substantial admiration for the work of his protagonists: men who consolidate scattered resources to create a gigantic well-oiled machine designed to deliver value and produce profit. The creators, in other words. It made me think of how rare such sentiments are. Pure capitalists are not widely appreciated, in literature of all places. However, one place that this appreciation can be reliably found is in the work of Ayn Rand.

Leo Tolstoy said, “what a strange illusion it is to suppose that beauty is goodness!” – and I’d like to keep this thought in mind as I proceed. I am a strong advocate for business ethics and sustainability, for financial donations and moral practices (rather than amoral, or for that matter immoral), which, in the classical terms of the armchair economist, prohibit efficiency and result in “sub-optimal” performance.  Capitalism is often good, but it may not always be good, and many unsettling news stories can tell us that. But capitalism in its ideal state is, I argue, always beautiful.

– – –

I distinctly remember reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged for the first time, just sitting there awestruck. I found an author who showed me something exceedingly simple but extremely novel at the same time.  What I came to respect about Ayn Rand is her willingness to apply the principles of capitalism to an extreme in her fiction. Her heroes embody the principles of the free market: every individual makes rational choices to maximize their well-being. Emotional well-being, spiritual well-being, and physical well-being are all intertwined because they all belong to the one unity that is the individual. It is this singular way of treating a human that draws the reader in.

Once she develops the character, she gives her direction. To Rand, the three virtues in life are reason, purpose, and self-esteem.  The protagonist is rational (because of reason), she has goals (because of purpose), and she knows that she deserves to attain them through her good work (because of self-esteem). Clearly, life to this woman is a blessing and a joy, even with its challenges. I can’t think of a more empowering philosophy.

And now, let’s step back to capitalism: Rand’s philosophy for humanity is based on it. Sure, it’s an extreme statement and a generalization of what people are made of, but it illustrates a point: we would be better off if we all acted a bit more rationally, with a bit more purpose, and if all the while we were a bit more sure of ourselves.  These principles aren’t lacking in emotion, warmth, or happiness; they actually incorporate all of these into our daily functioning life by making them part of the one rational human being.

– – –

I invite people to disagree with parts of Rand’s books because there is good discussion to be had. For example, Can brilliant minds really be identified just by sorting through the high profile industrialists and creators? Why or why not? Are there value-adding professions that are undervalued by the free market? How do we identify them, and does their existence warrant market intervention? Rand argues for minimal government – how much government is right, given we don’t live in a perfect market? I can go on and on.

However, what I do not agree with is the irritating blind dislike of Rand or her books that turns up every once in a while. Such critics should read her books first, and then develop an intelligent opinion. I think they are missing the point.

And ultimately, the point is this: we should all realize that rather than oppressing human nature, Rand’s writing – and the under-appreciated beauty of capitalism – redefines human nature, liberates it, and gives it an ideal to strive for.

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