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Michael Sievernich {*}

If Selfishness Becomes a Virtue

On the Influence of Writer Ayn Rand in the U.S.

 

From: Herder Korrespondenz, 10/2012, P. et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

    In the eyes of many people, irresponsibility and recklessness, especially in the banking sector, have caused the global financial crisis of recent years. Here, it is very interesting to analyze also indirect influences of the intellectual background noise: as e.g. the work of the American writer Ayn Rand (1905-1982). Her novels have admittedly hardly found literary recognition. But as a cult figure, she influences up to the present day not only the popular culture of the United States but also political actors, especially in the economic and financial policy.

 

When in 2009 at the summit of the so-called G-20 in Pittsburgh, in view of the financial crisis its political control was on the agenda, there was a surprise of a special kind. After they had discussed the financial markets and the world economy, the Heads of State and Government and the Ministers of Finance of the most productive industrial and emerging countries adopted a final document that, like a confessional, included remorse, admission of guilt and good intentions. At the "Pittsburgh Summit," they promised "to leave the era of irresponsibility behind," and no longer to allow the excesses, the reckless behavior and the "lack of responsibility" (16) in the financial economy. In addition to confessing the irresponsible excesses and recklessness, there were also remorse for the omissions in the past as well as the intention of mending one's ways in the future. For now one would set about "ushering in a new era of sustainable global economic activity grounded in responsibility." (annex 1) Finally, in a rhetorically impressive commitment, the participating States commit to bear responsibility (annex 5).

It remains to be seen, whether this collective commitment, no pardon will be given, remained summit prose or has politically long term effects. It shows at least the imperative need for correction in the field of politics, economy and morals. For it is not only about financial issues, but also about fundamental ethical attitudes which are summarized in the headword of responsibility. In the 20th century, this category made a career above all by Max Weber ("Ethics of Responsibility") and Hans Jonas ("The Imperative of Responsibility") and has since then been an integral part of individual- and socio-ethical discourses. Already the etymology of the term reveals an underlying "responsory" principle. According to it, an authority is involved to which you must answer. Thus, the preamble of the Constitution speaks of the "responsibility before God and man".

It is the task of experts to clarify how did it come about that irresponsibility, recklessness and excesses occured at the highest levels. But there are also indirect influences from the intellectual background noise: they become manifest e.g. in that radical revaluation of values which is held by the American writer Ayn Rand (1905-1982).

 


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As a cult figure, she did not only shape the popular culture but also political actors, especially in the economic and financial policies, as e.g. the longtime head of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan (born in 1926). Also the much younger Congressman and fiscal policy expert Paul Ryan (born in 1970), who in the 2012 election campaign was Republican vice presidential candidate, has read with pleasure Rand's novel, but he distanced himself from her atheistic philosophy. Which novel is it about?

 

A Novel for Times of Economic Crisis

In the crisis year 2008, there were different reactions among the affected bankers. Some filled the churches in the New York financial district, particularly the between Broadway and Wall Street located Trinity Church. It reported a significant increase in visitor figures, because many of the by the financial crisis battered or dismissed bank clerks visited the churches as places of reflection and solace; or they looked for pastoral counseling, and possibilities of a debt-free or guilt-free fresh start. Others, probably the far greater part, saw the reason of the crisis in something else. They rather believed that they had perhaps made financially a few technical mistakes but in principle done the right thing. They therefore had only to make ready strategically and tactically, in order to be better prepared for a future bursting of bubbles. On such occasions, in the United States people enjoy reaching for a novel that was a bestseller in the fifties, and has since then been sold continuously. It is typical of this novel that in times of economic crisis its sales figures soar, as in the case of the recession of 2000, when the speculative bubble of the New Economy burst, or in the since 2008 ongoing financial crisis. However, the growing demand in times of crisis does not signify a growing literary interest, but rather the need for individual self-assurance and moral confirmation.

It is the thick novel "Atlas shrugged" (1957) of the Russian-American writer Ayn Rand. The title refers to the mythological figure of the antique Atlas, who is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. The cover picture of an American edition shows the well-known Atlas sculpture in the Art Deco style in front of the Rockefeller Center in New York's Fifth Avenue. The main novel of Rand was repeatedly published also in German, but under different titles: "Atlas wirft die Welt ab" (1989), "Wer ist John Galt?" (1997), "Der Streik" (2012).

This typical novel of ideas has little literary quality but great impact on the upscale popular culture. The plot of the crime novel about economical issues is enriched by science fiction, romances, and political messages. It revolves around the heroine Dagny Taggart, vice president of a railroad company. She explores the disappearance of successful entrepreneurs and finds in John Galt the key player and the equal heroe who defends the rational self-interest of the individual in a new society against the predatory state - and is thus the defender of an ideology that the author pretends to be ethics. The characters of the novel represent these ideas and serve the goal to pave the way for an unregulated and uncontrolled, in the true sense of the word ruthless laissez-faire capitalism.

 

Harry Potter for Financiers

The allegorical novel has found harsh criticism but also enthusiastic readers. It illustrates the by the author held philosophy of "rational objectivism," according to which the exclusive pursuit of one's own well-being and happiness is the sole basis of morals and general welfare. That's why the author, in the true sense of Friedrich Nietzsche's "revaluation of all values", declares egoism (selfishness) to be a virtue and selflessness to be a vice. This has significant consequences on her conception of the world and of man. Economically, the author considers the by the State completely undisturbed capitalism to be the only means to secure prosperity for everybody. She therefore wants to repress completely the State's activities. Analogous to the separation of state and religion she is in favor of a separation of state and economy. The state had ultimately only to ensure the egoistic individual's police protection against the violence of others. According to her, all other government activities and interventions, including the collection of taxes and social programs, are an evil, since they only hinder the selfishly unfolding individuals to promote their own interests.

Accordingly, in Rand's view, it is immorality if you take the interests of others into account, in solidarity support somebody's cause, or even make sacrifices for others. The biggest threat would be altruism, which puts aside one's own interests in favor of others. This results in the rejection of any social welfare activity or regulation by the state. The novel teaches anything but a "social market economy." On the contrary, it advocates the libertarian ideology of a "pure" capitalism - free of all social considerations. The novel is a Harry Potter for financiers and entrepreneurs who want speculatively to "perform magic." For this they enter into this parallel world, where Ayn Rand promises the apotheosis of the "ego" and the greatest possible individualism. That's why Rand's adepts regard this novel as America's second Declaration of Independence.

 


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Transvaluation of Selfishness into a Virtue

The author Ayn Rand, a pseudonym for Alisa Rozenbaum, came from a wealthy Russian Jewish family of pharmacists, who had lost their property through the revolution. After studying history and philosophy (Marxism) in Petrograd / Leningrad, she emigrated to the U.S.. There she worked in the film industry in Hollywood and was naturalized. Then she wrote novels like "The Fountainhead" (1943) and "Atlas shrugged" (1957), which were successful and became bestsellers. In her youth she had got to know the early Russian Communism, and the mechanisms of a socially disguised expropriation. Her experiences with the Bolshevik revolution and collectivism resulted in her over-adjustment in America, so that she went from one extreme to another. She propagated a "pure" socially unbridled capitalism which demands no sacrifices. Its radically market-oriented freedom excludes any forms of empathy or solidarity. Her novels revolve around these two foci of socialist collectivism and libertarian capitalism. Their characters follow a binary setting: They either belong to the group of egoistic good guys, who are always rich, smart, beautiful, successful and childless (like the author), or to the group of the altruistic bad guys, who are always ugly, unsuccessful, self-tormenting and immoral. Winners are always the thus conceived "good guys."

Her novels and philosophical essays are closely intertwined. The characters of the novels present her philosophical ideas, and she proves her ideas with her own fictitious characters. It seems that this self-referential technique, due to the circular argument, contributes to her popularity, because philosophical ideas are thus by means of fiction made intuitively accessible. The author advocates a morality of self-interest or rational selfishness. Its meaning is reflected in the title of a collection of essays: "The Virtue of Selfishness A New Concept of Egoism" (1964).

To this supposed "virtue" of selfishness are added others, as e.g. pride - hence one of the classic vices. In her re-evaluation of the values of the Judeo-Christian ethical heritage, she rejects every form of commitment to others, because this would demand selflessness, sufferings and sacrifices, and thus corrupt all morality. By contrast, her concept would promote life, self-interest, self-esteem and selfishness as the only true morality. Thus, we have here the caricature of 'ethics': It knows no commitment to others, excludes programmatically solidarity, and recognizes no family or charitable values.

 


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Regardless of whether they are presented narratively or argumentatively - in her world of ideas not only the empathy for the (needy and distressed) others is missing; the author, although of Jewish origin, has also lost the sense of transcendence, because she acts and writes on the basis of atheism.

In the same way as her novels have hardly found literary recognition and are considered to be lowbrow, the experts in philosophy have hardly taken her crude moral philosophy seriously, and if so, they criticized it as defective. Her work has nevertheless a lasting impact up to this day, especially in the United States. This is manifested by the numerous editions of her books as well as by the institutions and publications that are dedicated to the dissemination of her work. They exert thus a significant influence on bright students of politics and economy: their conception of world and economy is shaped by individualistic self-assertion, and in the "virtue of selfishness" they see the royal road to the common good. This influence is also evidenced by the film versions of her novels, and translations in numerous languages, including Chinese, Mongolian and Russian. This reflects the fact that her ideas meet with wide interest - especially in countries of transition from socialism to capitalism.

 

A Cult Figure and Its Political Influence

As libertarian popular philosopher, Ayn Rand won many people over to her ideas: from politics to economy to the media. One of her earliest friends and close followers was Alan Greenspan, who for a long time moved in her closest circle. Until 2006, he held for nearly two decades the office of president of the Federal Reserve. In that time he was the Sphinx on the stage of the financial world. In enigmatic language and gestures he directed the fiscal destiny of the country. Under his responsibility, the Fed pursued a policy of cheap money, encouraged risky financial transactions and triggered that "consumerism mecca on credit," which resulted in the distortions of the financial markets and the global economy, as Ingeborg Harms analyzed in the business section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (4 August 2010): Ayn Rand, a Bolshevik of Capital saw the Superman as Entrepreneur. Greenspan assessed positively the much-discussed factor of "greed." For he said already in the sixties, it was the greed of profiteers that protected the consumers, and so it was not necessary to protect them by state control against greed (see, Ayn Rand, Capitalism. The Unknown Ideal, New York, 1967, 118).

In the fifties and sixties, Greenspan was a regular guest at meeting in Rand's flat. According to his own words, he had at that time the fire of an "enthusiastic disciple". It only waned due to Rand's radicality and inconsistency, because she regarded e.g. taxes as immoral. But he remained all his life her "disciple." When he under President Ford in 1974 was appointed Chairman of the influential "CEA", Ayn Rand stood at his side in the Oval Office. He praised her, she had extended his horizon and his world beyond mathematical curves and business models.

For him this only meant to take other people with their views into consideration, but he had no own value-oriented horizon. In his autobiography, he who was shaped by logical positivism admits for instance that "All of my work had been empirical and numbers-based, never values-oriented" (The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, New York, 2007, 51-53). It is therefore not surprising that entries such as ethics, morality, or related concepts can not be found in the index.

 

The Collapse of Rand's Ethics

When in October 2008 a Senate committee called Greenspan to account and he had to answer questions regarding his financial policy and the crash, he was surprised at the flaw in his intellectual structure (shaped by Rand), namely at the fact that the self-regulation of self-interested individuals did not only not work but also proved to be self-destructive for their interests. Now it seemed that the "invisible hand" (Adam Smith) did not turn everything for the better but dipped into the pockets of selfish individuals.

Rand's ethics collapsed thus, because the supposed virtue of selfishness proved to be a vice that, if it has become systemic, undermines equally both the general welfare and one's own benefit - a fact that was long-since known to the intercultural moral sense and ethical traditions such as the Golden Rule or Kant's categorical imperative. It became apparent here that, behind superficial explanations of economic crises, there are also preliminary decisions on principle, a "philosophy" which in this case kept only the selfish interest in mind, and had nothing but contempt for others, especially if they were weak and in need. The frequently expressed criticism of these positions refers to the apotheosis of greed and selfishness, the systemic immorality, the discrediting of the state and the rejection of empathy and solidarity. But this did no harm to the popularity of this author. Business ethics and social teaching face great challenges. They must prove that their principles of responsibility, personality, solidarity and subsidiarity have more plausibility.

When Ayn Rand was still writing screenplays, the doyen of Catholic social teaching, Oswald von Nell-Breuning (1890-1991) wrote his doctoral thesis. He has decisively influenced the market-oriented economic constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany.

 


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In 1928, one year before the New York stock market crash, his dissertation 'Grundzüge der Börsenmoral' was published. There, he wrote about the ethical evaluation of speculation, "The abstract and absolutized pursuit of profit is inordinate and unrestrained on principle; it is anti-economic, anti-social, selfish on principle. Whether this is the 'capitalist sin' remains to be seen, but it is certainly the deadly sin of greed" (Grundzüge der Börsenmoral, Freiburg 1928; Reprint Münster 2002, 133).

Nell-Breuning thus refers to the scheme of the seven capital vices. It includes greed (avaritia) and pride (superbia); down to the present day it inspires to reflect on the human condition and on man's proneness to vice as habitualized sin (cf. Avid Kleinberg, Die sieben Todsünden, Berlin 2010).

The question of virtue and vice, which extends individually and systemically also into the economy, remains thus on the agenda and is therefore up to this day time and again addressed, both artistically or argumentatively. The basic distinction between good and evil, virtue and vice is always open to debate, and is not stopped by a revaluation that is based on false conclusions. Looking for a responsory ethics which assumes responsibility before God for the neighbor and for oneself but also for the building of institutions and regulatory systems, a moral "virtuosity" is at stake. Its beginning is already indicated in the "Ethics of the Fathers", which are recited on Sabbath: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?" (Pirke Avot 1, 14).

 

    {*} The Jesuit Michael Sievernich (born in 1945), professor emeritus. of pastoral theology at the University of Mainz, currently teaches as a visiting professor at the University of St. Georgen in Frankfurt. He is a consultant to the Commission X (Universal Church) and the Sub-Commission for Latin America of the German Bishops' Conference. Numerous publications on pastoral theology, universal church and intercultural issues. Study visits in North and South America. Festschrift: Evangelium und Kultur, edited by Mariano Delgado and Hans Waldenfels, Fribourg / Stuttgart 2010.

 

Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'