Thursday, February 12, 2015

First Contact – Part 19 – Objectivism

Hal and I shared an office and lab in graduate school. One day the topic of Social Security came up. Hal said, “I don’t like Social Security.”

I was dumbfounded. How could anyone be opposed to a program to help old people? (Well, old to me then, but now not so much.) My father was a big fan of the program, having told me how many older people had a tough time before Social Security.

I queried Hal. “Why?”

“Because of that first word in its name: Social.”

“Why are you against Social?”

“Because of what it represents. It’s a government mandated program of wealth transfer from the young to the old. I don’t like socialism.”

Well, I was opposed to socialism also because I associated it with communism. I had just never thought of Social Security as being a socialistic program. The reason was that I just didn’t think about such things very much in those days. I knew I lived in a free democratic republic with a capitalistic economy that didn’t believe in socialism. How could our country have a national socialistic program when it didn’t even believe in socialism?

This short exchange of words with my friend Hal made me realize that I couldn’t just assume certain things were true. I needed to analyze and decide for myself what was actually true.

A few years after becoming a Christian, I met a fellow believer named Larry who was heavily involved in what I call the Freedom Movement. He challenged not only Social Security, but also things like the fractional reserve banking system that is ubiquitous throughout our nation. To help me understand freedom more, Larry gave me a copy of a small book entitled “The Law” by a 19th century French assemblyman, political economist, and classical liberal theorist by the name of Frédéric Basiat. I loved it. It laid out the case for freedom and a limited government in a very convincing way. After seeing my enthusiasm for “The Law”, Larry convinced me to share in the cost of 100 copies to give away to our friends and family. Thus began my mission to spread the idea of real freedom to the world.

Reading “The Law” whetted my appetite for more freedom literature. Somewhere I ran across the name Ayn Rand. It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place where I had heard it. After reading about her novels, I thought I remembered having read one. I pulled out my old paperback books and discovered that I actually had a copy of Ayn’s novella “Anthem”. I immediately reread it. The book is about a dystopian future where people have reverted to living primitively, and new technology is severely limited. I was a fan of dystopian future novels, having also read George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, as well as haven seen the movies “THX 1138” and “Logan’s Run”.

Upon reading “Anthem” I decided I wanted to read some of Ayn Rand’s non-fiction. The first book I purchased was “The Voice of Reason”. It was a collection of essays by Ayn Rand and her protégé Leonard Peikoff. I soon discovered that she was not just a writer, but also a philosopher, having developed her own secular philosophy called Objectivism. Much of what I read in that book hit home with me. It was as if the writers had plucked my unorganized thoughts on the subject of freedom from my brain, logically reordered them, and then edited them for clarity. I was astounded; so much so I started buying more and more books on Objectivism and actually became an adherent. I read more of Rand’s non-fiction and fiction books including her magnus opus “Atlas Shrugged”.

I began sharing some of Ayn Rand’s ideas with a friend of mine from work named Mike. Interestingly, I considered myself a conservative while Mike considered himself a liberal. Yet Rand’s ideas changed us both into Objectivists. We did not agree with everything Rand taught, but in its essentials, we both agreed with the principles of Objectivism.

In case you are unfamiliar with Objectivism, I will present a short synopsis. Ayn Rand was once asked to define her philosophy on one leg, meaning in as few words as possible. She answered this way, “In Metaphysics, Objective Reality. In Epistemology, Reason. In Ethics, Self-Interest. In Politics, Capitalism.” Her expanded explanation was this:

1. Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.

2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.

3. Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.

4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

Most people don’t have a problem with number 1. We understand that the Universe exists apart from ourselves and operates independent of our wishes and desires. We have to learn to work with it to be successful.

Most people agree with number 2 except for the part that says that reason is man’s only means to knowledge. Everyone gains knowledge by reasoning about their observations of the world around them. However, religious people also believe that one type of knowledge, spiritual knowledge, comes by revelation, which is a direct transfer of knowledge from God or the spiritual realm to men’s minds.

The great majority of people live by number 3, but a large number of them don’t seem to like it and perhaps even deny it. Many people have an altruistic mindset, believing we should put others before ourselves. But if you examine those people’s lives, the vast majority will be found coming up short. Most people are generous and want to help others in need, but the people they help the most are themselves and their immediate families. Rand simply recognized that fact and said there was nothing wrong with it. In fact, it was a good and moral thing. And even if you have an altruistic bent, remember the emergency instructions given by flight attendants on a plane. Put the mask over your own face first so you will be in a better position to put the mask over your child’s face.

Number 4 is a whole other matter. It seems that most people have a big problem with pure capitalism. I admit that I have a bit of a problem with it also. But I also understand that if implemented properly, it truly is the only moral political system. That is because it is a completely voluntary system. Businesses are allowed to freely create their products and potential customers are allowed to freely decide whether they want to purchase them or not. In other political systems, like socialism or fascism, force is used. This typically manifests itself as the government telling businesses how to operate and telling customers what they can and cannot buy, or even what they must buy.

Yet, to have a pure capitalist society requires a huge majority of good and moral people in leadership positions both in the businesses and in the government. Otherwise, corruption occurs. Businesses support candidates in their election bids, and in return the winning candidate skews the laws in favor of the supporting business. It may be for this reason that an economics professor I had in college said, “Capitalist systems never last. They always ultimately lead to communism.”

Anyway, as I said, I came to consider myself an Objectivist, and so did my friend Mike. Later we discovered that a lady that worked with us, Susanna, and her husband Charles, were Objectivists. Or rather, they discovered we were Objectivists. Charles and Susanna invited Mike and me and our spouses to dinner to discuss our beliefs. It was interesting to find out that Charles and Susanna had been heavily involved in the early years of the Objectivist movement, having gotten training, I believe by audio tape, from Ayn Rand and her original protégé Nathaniel Branden.

At a later date Charles and Susanna invited several Objectivist friends from around the country to our corner of Alabama for a party. When I found out that one of my favorite Objectivist authors, Robert Bidinotto, was going to be there, I knew I had to attend.

It was quite an interesting evening, but started out badly. It had been raining heavily that day, so when I arrived there were pools of water and mud in the yard. I got out of my car and headed towards the cabin, carefully avoiding the muddy areas. Suddenly I noticed a big dog heading straight towards me, and from the look in his eyes I knew he wanted to greet me by pouncing on me. I couldn’t let that happen given his muddy paws and all. When he got close, I raised my leg and swiped at him yelling, “Get away!” Well, he did indeed get away, but my knee popped out of joint and I plummeted to the ground. Great! Just great! My knee quickly self-corrected, but I was in pain. Nonetheless, I picked myself up and hobbled to the cabin; wet muddy clothes and all.  I explained to my hosts what had happened, and they showed me the bathroom where I could tidy up as much as possible. During the party my knee pain subsided some allowing me to have a good time. I was excited to meet Robert. I had taken some of his articles with me to be autographed.

Objectivism has seen some rocky roads along its way. Early in the movement large numbers of people became interested in it. Nathaniel Branden even established an institute for the study of Rand’s new philosophy. However, as is often the case, the philosophers don’t always follow their own philosophy. Ayn Rand had an affair with her protégé Nathaniel which ultimately led to a big split between the two. Rand seemed to become more dogmatic about her beliefs over time even though she originally said that her philosophy was about individualism, thus requiring each individual to draw philosophical conclusions on his own.

In 1985, three years after Ayn Rand’s death, the Ayn Rand Institute was established by her philosophical heir Leonard Peikoff to carry forward Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. In 1990, philosopher David Kelley had a falling out with the Ayn Rand Institute over whether or not the philosophy was an open or closed system. Kelley believed Objectivism should be open, meaning that it should be willing to change as new information became available. Peikoff, on the other hand, believed that the philosophy was closed and that any changes made to the Objectivism that Rand had laid out would necessarily have to be considered a different philosophy and should not be called Objectivism. Kelley went on to form a new group named the Institute for Objectivist Studies. It is now known as The Atlas Society.

Yet, despite all the turmoil in the Objectivist community, Rand has continued to influence many people with her ideas. Her novel “Atlas Shrugged” still sells well today almost 60 years after its release. In recent years a three part movie of “Atlas Shrugged” was produced. It did not do very well at the box office, but I saw all three and thought they were well done and captured the essence of the novel quite well.

Back in 1988 I began writing some philosophical articles of my own and continued to do so for many years. None were published until 1997. At that time a group called The Objectivist Club of Michigan published a well known newsletter entitled “Full Context: An International Objectivist Publication”. I submitted one of my articles and it was published in their December 1997 issue. I had two other articles published in this name newsletter in 1998 and 2000. You can read them along with other unpublished articles on my personal Web site. The published articles were “Virtues and Meta-Values”, “The Truman Show: A Review”, and “Truth and Happiness”.

Most of my philosophical articles were serious in nature. However, my life has always been a balance of serious and humorous. In fact, as much as I enjoy a serious discussion, I think I would go nuts without my humorous side. So, to balance out my serious philosophical articles, I wrote a humorous philosophical book entitled “Beginnings to Endings: Philosophical Ramblings for Avoiding Global Destruction”. It was initially published as a paperback book in 2001, but was also released as a Kindle book in 2011.

While I continue to agree with Objectivism to a great extent, over time I have become a bit jaded. There seem to be too many people in the world who simply don’t want to be free. Perhaps it is because freedom is hard work. In a free society you are on your own. You must provide for your own welfare or convince others to help you out. Sure, there will be volunteer groups to help the less fortunate, but most people seem to believe that those would not be enough. They believe the government must step in to fill the gap. But government uses force to accomplish its mission. To fund its programs, it forces citizens to turn over their earnings via taxes. It heavily regulates businesses. It tells citizens what they can, cannot, and must do. It colludes with businesses, passing laws that benefit some and hurt others. And on and on it goes. Coercion is the name of the game.

So, yes, my hopes that our world might move more towards reason and freedom have been greatly dashed. Of course the occasional ray of sunshine burns through, but I despair that there will be a mighty movement in that direction. But alas, I am getting older now. I suppose I will leave these matters to the next generation.

In closing I would like to present an interesting fact. I was born on February 2, 1955. Ayn Rand was born on February 2, 1905, exactly 50 years before me. Also, notice that the name Ayn Rand can be created with just the letters in my first name (if the “a” and “n” are used twice). I’m sure there is some type of mystical connection here, but after many years of searching I still don’t know what it is.

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