Selfishness of the Fittest?

Ayn Rand became famous (infamous) for her views on altruism. As an atheist, Rand was convinced that doing things that were not in the individual’s own self-interest was pure foolishness. In order to make her point she used shocking language—not in the sense of being vulgar, but in the sense of being forthright. The title of one of her philosophical books (in reality, all of her books—even the fictitious ones—were philosophical) was The Virtue of Selfishness. Shocking? You bet. And yet this title accurately summarizes her political, economic, and philosophic views.

Rand was a devoted capitalist. Those who haven’t looked into her writings are often surprised to learn this. She was a stalwart proponent of the free market and free enterprise and was adamantly opposed to state and government intervention. In a 1966 article entitled “The Roots of War,” she wrote:

It is obvious that the ideological root of statism (or collectivism) is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases to whatever it deems to be its own “good.”

Most modern conservatives would readily agree with this statement: statism, bad; individual rights, good. So far, so good. But listen to her further argument:

Unable to conceive of any social principles, save the rule of brute force, they [primordial savages] believed that the tribe’s wishes are limited only by its physical power and that other tribes are its natural prey, to be conquered, looted, enslaved or annihilated. The history of all primitive peoples is a succession of tribal wars and intertribal slaughter. That this savage ideology now rules nations armed with nuclear weapons, should give pause to anyone concerned with mankind’s survival.

Again, another true statement, yet many conservatives should be raising their hands with questions at this point. Rand’s anti-war message here is great and hopeful, but it is utterly naïve. It is one thing to be philosophically anti-war, it is another to actually live it out. What do we do in the meantime, when savage ideology possesses nuclear weapons and wants to obliterate any other tribe that gets in its way? Rand’s philosophy is short on answers. She was all about individual rights, but only until one individual’s rights began to infringe on the rights of another. She was quite confident in telling her readers and disciples what individuals should strive to do, but less so when it came to individuals in large groups. She simply couldn’t accept the logical outworking of her own philosophical worldview of “selfishness” when it came in the form of tyranny or oppression. Selfishness it seems, even for the ultimate selfish philosopher, has its limits.

Of course, Rand should be congratulated for resisting complete selfishness. In a sense, it really goes to show that she was not an atheist after all (or at least an intellectually honest one). Rand was known for being coldly and brutally logical, and yet she couldn’t produce a logical argument as to why men must not enslave other men. Her “selfish” philosophy broke down at this point and her morality kicked in. Rand didn’t believe in enslaving others, because she herself did not want to be enslaved, that is, her “selfishness” of not wanting to be a subject trumped the selfishness of others who wanted to make her a subject. In short, she believed that acting in selfish ways was to be commended, except when it wasn’t. The lesson? Even free enterprise is constrained by religion (that is, a morality outside of the individual)—it is not, as some anti-capitalists are wont to claim—the economic equivalent of “survival of the fittest” (the real owner of that distinction would be Communism, but that is another topic for another day).