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What the Fuck, Yaron Brook? — Part V: Shit Happens

A Note to Readers: I’ve made the decision to make my latest post into a multi-part series exploring both my understanding of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism and why I struggle with publicly calling myself an Objectivist—primarily because of Dr. Yaron Brook and the Ayn Rand Institute distorting important aspects of her philosophy. This is part five of a five-part series. Read parts one, two, three, and four.

What happens, then, in a laissez-faire system, with no taxes and no cushion for disaster, if disaster strikes? I spend a lot of time talking, sometimes debating, with a good friend who is not an Objectivist and has very strong, left-leaning humanist qualities. We’ve discussed, more than once, how the Objectivist Utopia would function with no welfare state. Would the downtrodden be left to fester and rot because they’re too inept to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?

My answer is most often, “Private charity.” This ranges from family or other loved ones caring for a person who can’t care for himself (since it would be impossible for him to become a burden to the state), all the way up to huge organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or the International Red Cross, well-funded and constantly fighting global battles.

Even in our non-Utopia, private charity shows it can do its work better and more efficiently than the government does (many nonprofits prove this almost daily). Even in a world where 100% of people hold as virtues the ideas of self-reliance and individual liberty, shit happens. Objectivists and free-market economists often state that the period between 1867-1901 is the closest this country came to a true free market. No, it was never entirely free, but it was the closest we’ve come. So let’s consider the Johnstown Flood of 1889, smack dab in the middle of that period, in which 2,209 people died when a rickety dam burst. For context, this was the worst flood that hit the United States in the nineteenth century, and it suffered the third-largest loss of life of any American catastrophe. At the time, the country had no welfare state, no real infrastructure to handle massive disasters like this. It was not seen as a proper function of a free government, just as it isn’t in Objectivism (and shouldn’t be).

What happened, then? The American Red Cross canvassed the country for donations; the International Red Cross also collected donations for countries all over the world. In total, they collected nearly $4 million (approximately $93 million today)—not a dime of it from a U.S. institution. Objectivists can level any number of criticisms here: that the Red Cross is a Christian organization that extorted money by means of religious guilt (possibly true), that Clara Barton later exploited this tragedy to secure annual federal funds for her organization (absolutely true), that if they had left well enough alone private enterprise would have built something even better than the South Fork Dam and found a way to profit from it—hell, if they’re anti-charity enough, they may even go so far as to concoct a conspiracy theory that the dam couldn’t withstand the flood because of government interference (after all, it was originally built by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for public use).

But one fact still remains: shit happens. Private enterprise is about weighing risks against rewards. In an Objectivist Utopia, it would be crazy for home builders to earthquake-proof houses in Illinois, because earthquakes almost never happen here. When they do, they’re pretty minor… But the fact that they do means maybe—maybe!!—“The Big One” could hit here. And then what? Shit happened, there was no government regulations to force needlessly expensive earthquake-proofing, and now a bunch of people are dead. The Objectivist government has neither the resources nor the authority to declare the state a disaster area and flood it with tax money and FEMA trailers. What happens in a situation like this?

Charity is what happens. Not charity from guilt; charity from reason. A rational person in a rational world can look at a set of really shitty circumstances and evaluate whether or not they deserve help, and how much help to give.

I’ve thought a lot about religious mysticism: why people were drawn to it in the past, and why they continue to be now. My opinion is that religions tend to tap into truthful aspects of human nature; they just don’t do a very good job of it. They exalt altruism as almost the ultimate virtue, because they saw something in their followers: an innate desire to help others in a crisis. But then they saw that the desire left as soon as the crisis was averted. How to solve that? I know! Turn self-sacrifice into the ultimate virtue!!* That way, people will give even when they don’t want to and have no real reason to. Yaaaaaayyyy!!

Like many religious concepts, it takes a kernel of human nature and distorts it into something incompatible with human living. People should not sacrifice themselves for the sake of others, especially strangers. More often than not, though, human compassion and empathy drives those who can to give what they can, and they can be especially generous when they know it’s going to a legitimately worthy cause. If we’re talking about a disaster in a hypothetical Objectivist Utopia, it would be easier to believe a charitable cause is worthy, because it would be organized and run by passionate, compassionate people who will do the best possible job with your money. And hey, if you don’t want to donate at all, then don’t—we’re in the Objectivist Utopia, where it’s not a sin not to donate.

In the midst of Brook’s stammering thoughts, he says things that could be misconstrued as good points. First, he implies that people are already “donating” to charity in the form of paying taxes to the “entitlement state.” Okay, I could see that. Particularly for a wealthy person, the money is taken by force for taxes, so how could any Objectivist fathom donating even more, except out of altruism? I still stand by my point above, which is that it’s an individual choice—and if the individual has the means and desire, and believes who he or she is donating to are worthy of help, who is Brook to decide that’s altruism? Short of someone telling him, “I’m donating to this charity because I feel guilty for having so much money,” he can’t put that label on them. I think it’s insulting for him to paint all Objectivists with such a broad brush.

It’s also kind of a bizarre way to solicit donations. That brings me to the other almost-good point. Toward the end, he starts to argue that his issue is less about donating in general, but more about his believe that people are “throwing the money away from a rationally self-interested long-term perspective,” so “the only nonprofit [they] should give money to is the Ayn Rand Institute and similar organizations that are fighting for freedom, because that is the only important battle out there.” I can see why Brook would think this—he runs the stupid charity—but his entire answer comes dangerously close to crossing the border into telling people what to do/think, which is the biggest of the Objectivist no-nos. Now, he doesn’t actually cross that line—but to lecture on how people should use their money, and what they should be fighting for, is pretty fucking close.

What if you believe in Ayn Rand but not the Ayn Rand Institute? That about sums me up. I don’t label myself an Objectivist, because I have no desire to be associated with neo-cons who use her work as a shield when it’s convenient. One of the nice things is that I don’t have to feel obligated to donate to anyone. But I think it’s irresponsible to suggest that my decision to donate to an organization like Planned Parenthood—which I do when I can—is somehow altruistic, or that Planned Parenthood isn’t in some way fighting for freedom. Yes, they accept federal funds, but that doesn’t make them enemies of freedom. The work they do is valuable, and they rely on donations to make up the other two-thirds. I donate when I can afford to, because I believe it is worthy of helping.

More than that, it’s self-interested: I believe a significant problem in this country are people having kids when they either shouldn’t or don’t want to. Access to birth control is vital, especially for teenagers, who generally lack an income. The continued existence of Planned Parenthood is of paramount importance to create a better world for me (no, I don’t believe in eugenics like Margaret Sanger; I believe in shitty parents destroying their kids); the fact that it will benefit everyone else is secondary.

And for those who might be thinking the “Affordable Care” and “Patient Protection” Act rolled a lot of Planned Parenthood’s functions into its required coverage, here’s why I still support Planned Parenthood instead of letting my taxes do the work: Obamacare sucks. It needs to be repealed. Who the fuck thinks the solution to health insurance corruption is making everyone buy it? Fucking idiots. Where was I going with this? Oh, right—once Obamacare has been gotten rid of or drastically overhauled, Planned Parenthood will regain its absolute necessity. I have no problems with supporting it until they’ve weathered the storm of stupidity.

To wrap this bellicose raving up into something resembling a conclusion: I’ve grown wary of the Ayn Rand Institute. The more I learn about it, the less I like it. Its stated positions on the War on Terror turned me off first. Slowly but surely, more and more comments from ARI-affiliated Objectivists—particularly Yaron Brook—have eaten away at me. Until now, I’ve just rolled my eyes and moved on with my life. I would have continued to do that if Yaron Brook wasn’t Yaron Brook and ARI wasn’t claiming to promote Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

I’ve made the case that ARI is doing no such thing under Brook’s direction. Nobody has to agree with me; I don’t really care. I just felt the need to go on something resembling the record as saying I admire Ayn Rand’s work and philosophy, and I think ARI’s policies are retarding its spread (in more ways than one). Because of ARI, I do not call myself an Objectivist. Because of ARI, I choose not to discuss Ayn Rand with anyone except those I trust implicitly and those who will have an open mind—not those who simply reject her philosophy based on what they’ve heard. It’s not a concern for what irrational idiots and/or relative strangers might think of me; it’s that merely mentioning her name will cause an argument that’s not worth having, because I’d have to spend all my time untangling the warped version of Objectivism touted by ARI. And in order to do that, it’ll just sound like I’m proselytizing to gain converts, which I have zero desire to do. It’s a shame, though, because I think Objectivist philosophy can help a lot of troubled people come to terms with their problems. I wouldn’t preach to them, but being able to have a reasonable conversation in an environment where “Ayn Rand” isn’t a loaded name… That would be pretty nice.

And I’m tired of that, because I don’t care what people think, and I want to be able to talk about the things I believe very strongly without an immediate, irrational prejudice. The prejudice is on them, not me, but it’s also on ARI. ARI is the one subtly but sincerely promoting Ayn Rand’s work as compatible with neo-conservative fundamentals. I happen to think there’s very, very little in Rand to support beliefs that include:

  • Relentless deficit spending
  • Police states
  • The basic concept of Team America: World Police
  • Additional foreign military intervention for the purposes of imperialism and/or to “promote democracy” as a moral duty
  • Unchecked expansion of executive powers
  • Racial bigotry
  • Religious bigotry, including limiting rights of homosexuals and women on that basis
  • Obliterating laws pertaining to gun control
  • Rejecting laws strengthening gun control
  • Lowering/eliminating taxes only for the wealthy elite, shifting the burden to the middle class, the next generation, and foreign T-Bill purchasers
  • Enacting covert or overt military revenge on nations whose political policies cause them to seize American assets on their land

I’m not an activist, but I would like people out there to have a clearer, more honest view of what Ayn Rand actually wrote and how human her philosophy is. Indirectly, ARI is the reason I put off reading Atlas Shrugged until a couple of years ago. It profoundly influenced my favorite uncle, so I suspected it couldn’t be all bad—but ARI made it very, very easy for its opponents to shit on Rand. That kept me from it, rather than moving me toward it. Now, fortunately, ARI is simply keeping me from ARI. I’m okay with that, but Yaron Brook shouldn’t be.

*This is obviously an oversimplified, smartassy interpretation of events, but consider the fact that the majority of the religions that still endure were developed by oppressed peoples looking at their oppressors and then trying to tell others, “We shouldn’t follow that example.” And when that didn’t work, they said, “God says we shouldn’t follow that example.” [Back]

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