UNDERSTANDING CONTRAST BETWEEN AYN RAND AND JOHN DEWEY ON INDIVIDUALISM; WHY IT IS IMPORTANT TO OUR FUTURE.

Long admired by some conservatives and libertarians, the rise of the Tea Party in 2008 has brought Ayn Rand’s intellectual and cultural philosophy into prominence in current political discussions1. Her ideas have certainly influenced the seeming disdain for the mass of workers in our society, as expressed in Mitt Romney’s comments defining the “47%” who are considered by some as “moochers,” not contributing their share to society. Rand’s followers envision a society where a handful of heroic businessmen are responsible for all the economic good while the rest of us are just along for the ride2.

Rand’s influence is an ethical philosophy based on rational self-interest and not on religion but on an economy of “free” markets without rules or regulations. Her unrestrained faith in “free’’ capitalism is totally incompatible with any aspect of altruism. She considers any formal religion as evidence of psychological weakness and as “evil”. In her cultural vision, the “I” of the individual ego is the supreme being3. The social and political extensions of this philosophy hold that the “the best of us” are autonomous individuals who have no need for other human beings except in what they can do for us. It includes the idea that no social goal justifies “forcing any individual to be a resource for others” An example would be any form of taxation which is seen as a theft from the “producers” in society and taxation for the “public good” is wrong. 4

One ignores these ideas or refuses to take them seriously at the risk of not understanding what intellectual, cultural and ethical forces are influencing and inspiring a number of significant Republican policy makers, public officials and their supporters. These include Alan Greenspan who was an acolyte in Rand’s close group before he became Chairman of the Federal Reserve for more than a decade, and a fierce advocate of the free-market ideology. One of the most prominent is Rep. Paul Ryan [R-WI] the author of Romney’s draconian budget proposal of 2011 as well as candidate for Vice-President of the US in 2012. Others include Rep. Ron Paul [R-TX], one of the main proponents of current libertarianism and his son Senator Rand Paul [R-KY] and Senator Ron Johnson [R-WI]. Other Rand fans include Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former SEC chairman Christopher Cox and former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford1,3.

One antidote to the pervasiveness of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is John Dewey’s concept of individualism. He proposes that our human genetic and cultural endowment includes the ability to cooperate and have altruistic impulses in addition to selfish ones. Dewey stresses that these two characteristics are essential to living in a world of “community causes and consequences”. We thus must realize that we live in a world of human beings whose concerns are every bit as legitimate as our own5. Dewey presents a powerful conception of public virtue and positive liberty which is enhanced by social cooperation. For him this means that promoting and supporting individual freedom and opportunity requires not just private ambition [ego centric] but public collaboration and an open experimental attitude to keep up with changing social, cultural and environmental conditions. It seems quite clear that the Randian-influenced economic domestic policies of the last three decades–instead of promoting individual freedom and opportunity for the majority of us–have through deregulation, deunionization, and regressive tax policies, led to the most severe economic crisis in 70 years, together with soaring inequality, and decreased upward social mobility5. Rand argues that her brand of individualism is incompatible with ‘the public good”. Dewey argues that culture is the seedbed of individuality and that authentic individualism can only develop in a progressive democratic society that cultivates public virtue as well as private ambition. His view is that individuals, by effective self control and a humble observation of existing social realities, can create the conditions for the realization of individual initiative with the help of public education, equal economic opportunity and social development5.

In summary, the difference between these two philosophies is stark. Ayn Rand promotes a utopian fantasy that celebrates radical dissociation, an ethical virtue of selfishness and unrestrained capitalism. Dewey, on the other hand, promotes a democratic, public minded philosophy grounded in the world as it exists. The distinctions are clear. It is not choice between individualism and collectivism. IPPA believes it is choice between competing visions of a free society and how to balance individual self-interest and collective public good. Which of these roadmaps our country chooses to follow may determine the fate of the majority of our citizens for years to come.

  1. http://www.jenniferburns.org/blog/111-ayn-rands-long-journey-to-the-heart-of-american-politics
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/21/opinion/krugman-disdain-for-workers.html?
  3. http://www.alternet.org/story/153454/how ayn rand seduced generations of young men and helped make the u.s. into a selfish and greedy nation
  4. http://www.alternet.org/story/150971/3 fatal flaws in ayn rand’s perverse moral philosophy
  5. http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/12429-the antidote to ayn rand

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