2012-12-20

Ayn Rand Quote Of The Day: Beyond Polemics

I haven't done these in a while. Today, the Ayn Rand page on Facebook offers the following quote from Atlas Shrugged:
So long as men live together on earth and need means to deal with one another—their only substitute, if they abandon money, is the muzzle of a gun.
I have written elsewhere (see, for example, this post) that the most apt criticism against Ayn Rand is that her writings were too polemic to win many converts. Admittedly, this criticism seems a little silly in consideration of the fact that Ayn Rand has won more converts than most ideologues out there today. Still, for many of those not convinced, they seem to be reticent about signing on to a belief system that forces people to choose between two stark unpleasantries, such as in the above quote, which may imply to some that we must choose between being money-grubbing versus being gun-toting.

Let's try to sift through Rand's polemics on this.

First of all, you'll have to start by taking my word for it that what Rand really meant to say is that when it comes to human interaction, there are only two options: war and peace. Either we cooperate with each other voluntarily to get what we want, or we coercively force other people to give us what we want. There is no third possibility in this case, since any form of of coercion, regardless of how gentle it appears to be, or how much you dilute it with niceties, is still coercion.

That last bit is important, because under an Objectivist framework, any ethical system grounded in altruism is necessarily coercive. Why? Because altruistic value systems demand (by definition) that a person sacrifice her own interests for the sake of others; any other course of action is insufficiently altruistic, and therefore insufficiently ethical.

Now, imagine you are being robbed. What is the ethical course of action? By altruism, you should sacrifice your interests (in the form of money, and perhaps your watch) for the interests of others (the robber). The gun is the robber's ethical enforcement mechanism.

Alternatively, he could tell you, "If you don't give me your money, then you are a greedy person and I will damn you to hell." And funnily enough, there are people out there who tell us this sort of thing. Most of them are religious leaders, but a great many of them are socialists. A sizable number of them are religious socialists.

The alternative to this sort of thing is something more like this... Suppose a would-be robber wants some of your money. He could rob you, or he could threaten you with eternal damnation, or he could tax you... Instead, though, he decides to convince you to relinquish your money voluntarily.

He might simply ask you for the money, but if the two of you are strangers, he likely won't get very far with that approach, particularly if he wants a large sum of money. So his best viable option is to offer you something that he values less than the money, but which you value more than the money. If you agree to trade with him, then you are both made better off. You both get what you both wanted.

If not, his only alternative is to rob you (you are forced to give him something, and made worse off for it), or levy moral threats against you (you are forced to either give up your money to reclaim your moral standing, or keep your money and lose your moral standing - either way, you're worse off for it).

So money isn't the only peaceful way to interact with each other, but money and voluntary goodwill are the only two ways people can interact with each other non-coercively. And that's what Rand really meant.