Thursday, August 16, 2012

Some thoughts on Ayn Rand

The recent nomination of Paul Ryan as the Republican candidate for Vice President has reminded me of one of my youthful literary escapades.  In my twenties I bought a copy of Ayn Rand's "The Virtue of Selfishness."

I read it a few times, underlining many passages.  I was quite struck by many of her arguments and have retained some respect even today.  Essentially she argues that if everyone pursues their selfish interests it is best for society.  For instance, my example, if enough people with enough money want to drive a car then there will be jobs for people making cars.  The system falls down when someone decides that we have too many cars and people should buy bicycles instead.  This causes unhappiness:  those making a living making cars lose their jobs and those who want to drive cars are frustrated.   I am reminded of a quote of Zig Ziglar:  " You can get whatever you want if you help enough people get what they want."

One point I still agree with whole heartedly is that to really follow your selfish interests it is best to take a long term view rather than a short term view.  To me this is one of the biggest issues of society today, impatience to get what we want.

The decision boils down to individualism vs. collectivism as how I read it recently.  Like many dichotomies there is merit to both sides, but there is also danger should either one dominate.

Balancing her contentions in some ways is Stephen R Covey.  In essence his book, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" is a guide to how an individual can be more effective, that is get more of what they want.  But the thinking is more all encompassing.  One of the habits is to understand deeply what the other person thinks and feels.  Another habit is to look for a win-win solution, very strongly stating that if only one side wins it is not the best solution.  Covey believes that society is inter-dependent and if you want to be effective (ie. succeed) you need to work within that framework.

Civilization did not get to where it is by constantly re-starting from scratch.  Isaac Newton said he stood on the shoulders of giants who came before him.  Over eons of time a lot of good ideas were gradually discovered by individuals and even more slowly accepted by others.  All individuals are totally dependent on the good will of others when born, but as they matured were able to contribute to the good of others.  As we mature our feeling of independence grows, but some of us never really realize we are always dependent on others.

Peer pressure is not always for the benefit of individuals or even of the group.  Most people, most of the time like to keep things the way they are and resist any change (including who makes different decisions for different concerns).  Change is how we progress.  Just as we want and need freedom to express ourselves and to contribute so do others.  We need to give them the room and the opportunity.

Implicit in these discussions are judgments on other people.  Ayn Rand contends they deserve what they get because they made a lot of decisions that put them there.  It is true that we are where we are not only because of decisions we made, but also because of decisions made by others.  If we are honest most of us have made bad decisions.  Sometimes we learned from them, sometimes we got locked in.  Sometimes we realized other people had been confronted by the same problem and learning how they handled it could be helpful.  Often someone else' decision created obstacles. It is true that some people are better than others at over coming obstacles, but it is also true that some people have more difficult obstacles to overcome.

Can we say all decisions are rational?  I would say too many decisions are emotional and that includes intellectuals.

As a society we will all suffer the consequences of poor decisions.  We all lose when the best person doesn't get the job, when talent gets wasted, when anyone suffers unjustly, when deserving people don't get a chance, when greed wins over justice.  Every individual in many ways got their power with the help of many other individuals and of circumstances.  How they exercise their power affects everyone.

Another set of thoughts that enter my thinking is from Bertrand Russell who wrote an essay, "In Praise of Idleness."  There are many people it seems to me who are quick to criticize those who apparently are not doing anything "useful" or who are not pursuing a normal path. They are just enjoying something.  We look down on such people, but we should respect what they want out of life as long as it doesn't hurt others.  If you cannot enjoy life what is the point?

Human nature should be the basis of how we organize ourselves.  We have many commendable traits, but unfortunately most look out for ourselves most of the time.  Some of us are talented at getting more than our share in relation to what we contribute.  A few are very adept at bending the rules for their own advantage.  When we get a little power we almost immediately try to figure out how we can increase our power and it is usually at the expense of someone else.  If this is just extrapolating my own nature I apologize, but believe there is some rational basis for my thoughts..

We need to find more effective ways to co-operate or we will all suffer, but at the same time we need to encourage individuals to fully use their talents and find their own solutions.  Problems like avoiding war, especially nuclear war, climate change, energy and food shortages, contagious disease, terrorism., etc require wide spread co-operation.   We cannot leave these decisions to powerful people with narrow interests.  There is merit in people speaking up for individualism, but there needs to be those advocating intelligent co-operation to help unleash individual talent.

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