Good news: Last Week Tonight is back. And this week it takes aim at Ayn Rand. The Russo-American philosopher and novelist who by openly advocating the value of selfishness wound up sounding like a satire of the argument for capitalism yet is inexplicably popular on the American Right.
The left-leaning policy journalist Jonathan Chait analysed her influence thus:
Rand’s most enduring accomplishment was to infuse laissez-faire economics with the sort of moralistic passion that had once been found only on the left. Prior to Rand’s time, two theories undergirded economic conservatism. The first was Social Darwinism, the notion that the advancement of the human race, like other natural species, relied on the propagation of successful traits from one generation to the next, and that the free market served as the equivalent of natural selection, in which government interference would retard progress. The second was neoclassical economics, which, in its most simplistic form, described the marketplace as a perfectly self-correcting
instrument. These two theories had in common a practical quality. They described a laissez-faire system that worked to the benefit of all, and warned that intervention would bring harmful consequences. But Rand, by contrast, argued for laissez-faire capitalism as an ethical system. She did believe that the rich pulled forward society for the benefit of one and all, but beyond that, she portrayed the act of taxing the rich to aid the poor as a moral offense.
Countless conservatives and libertarians have adopted this premise as an ideological foundation for the promotion of their own interests. They may believe the consequentialist arguments against redistribution–that Bill Clinton’s move to render the tax code slightly more progressive would induce economic calamity, or that George W. Bush’s making the tax code somewhat less progressive would usher in a boom; but the utter failure of those predictions to come to pass provoked no re-thinking whatever on the economic right. For it harbored a deeper belief in the immorality of redistribution, a righteous sense that the federal tax code and budget represent a form of organized looting aimed at society’s most virtuous–and this sense, which remains unshakeable, was owed in good measure to Ayn Rand.
I made a similar point on my old blog. I contrasted her views with those of Adam Smith:
At the root of the different viewpoints of Smith and Rand are fundamentally different views of morality itself. Rand’s philosophy simply turns the world on its head and makes virtue into a vice. Smith is attempting something much more complicated, to set how to create a good society composed of people who are not necessarily good. If we look closely at his famous saying that ‘it is not for the benefit of society that ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.’ We see not a celebration of self interest but a statement of how Smith believed things were. Smith might wish us to be entirely virtuous but he knows we’re not. He understood that to try to build a socialist utopia on such shaky foundations was futile and we would be better off trying to turn mans vices into virtues through the market.
The point I was making was that she was an extreme and unpleasant distortion of free market thought, and therefore a fringe figure who should not be held against the movement as a whole. In the eight years since I wrote it the Tea Party has invalidated my argument by taking her ideas to the centre of political debate in the most powerful country in the World.