Over the years since the publications of Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand has attracted a legion of admirers, including Alan Greenspan, the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. Most recently, Congressmen Paul Ryan and Ron Paul, and the latter's son, Senator Rand Paul, have expressed appreciation for Ayn Rand's vision in which she extolled unbridled selfishness and condemned altruism as a misguided instinct. Given the legacy of John Locke's antisocial individualism in this country, the gospel of selfishness has enjoyed a long and venerable history long before "Objectivism" was touted as something new and fashionable. Particularly during times of economic crises when,a s now, the social fabric has begun to fray, the advocates of selfishness have regularly reappeared to peddle their political philosophy as a nostrum that they claim will cure all that ails the country's body politic.
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Selfishness, however, can only be endorsed as a panacea by those who are oblivious to the economic and political evidence from American history and contemporary events. The grim news from the current Great Recession has, for example, once again confirmed one of the central paradoxes of the political philosophy of individualism as it plays out in the liberal democracy of the United States: the inability of that ideology to reconcile the tension between the pursuit of self-interest and equality. If self-interest, as expressed in the pursuit and acquisition of property, is a natural right, as John Locke held, since "God gave it to the use of the industrious and the rational (and labour was to be his title to it)" and the primary role of government is the protection of that property, isn't it inevitable that, over the span of generations, because of the complicity of not protecting such inheritances, and because of social and genetic distinctions among "the industrious and the rational" and those who are not, these inequalities increase?
Isn't the pursuit of self-interest by individuals, each of whom is in competition with all others, self-defeating? Doesn't unfettered competition often have deleterious effects upon the public interest? Isn't it an economic fact of life that, in a market economy, individual actors--whether human beings, corporations or governmental units--seek to maximize their advantages and to minimize their risks in a capitalist economy?
Isn't it also true that, when each actor "hunkers down" during an economic crisis, the self-replicating behavior--as reflected in job losses, withdrawal of investment and the collapse of consumer demand--ripples through the economy to the detriment of all but the few most fortunate? Doesn't that behavior then exacerbate the very problems that individual actors seek to inoculate themselves against, the public consequences of their behavior be damned? At that point, doesn't Garrett Hardin's famous essay on the "Tragedy of the Commons" become, rather than a parable, an empirical reality?
The magnitude and the duration of each economic crisis raises other questions which liberal ideology--and its economic expression, market capitalism--cannot answer. Of what value is the meaning of individualism to most individuals if, in the competitive roulette of "survival of the fittest," the fit and the victors increasingly number only a few, while a significant number of the population are vanquished or declared to be unfit? Doesn't even Locke's concept of negative freedom--because it does not provide for an economic underpinning--become, especially in times of economic misery, a platitude or a meaningless abstraction?
The almost universal acceptance of Locke's vision of social and economic reality has nearly destroyed our capacity to think beyond the world as it is. As Paul Krugman observed in his book, The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, the demise of the Soviet Union, and with it, the socialist vision, has left the liberal project triumphant and destroyed our capacity to imagine "a plausible alternative": "For the first time since 1917, then, we live in a world in which property rights and free markets are viewed as fundamental principles, not as grudging expedients; where the unpleasant aspects of a market system--inequality, unemployment, injustice--are accepted as facts of life..."
Given the increasing economic inequality, one must then be concerned about the kind of America that will exist in next few decades. Will we remain a modern industrial democracy, or will we become a third-world country? Will American culture descend into the kind of savage ethos described by Anthony Burgess in his book, A Clockwork Orange? Is it possible that Hobbes' nightmare vision of a liberal dystopia in which the life or man is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short" could become a reality? In such a scenario, wouldn't Locke's preference for limited government inevitably surrender to Hobbes's absolutist government?