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Society Then and Now

Society Then and Now

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September 30, 2010

Question: Having gone through most of Ayn Rand, except the strictly philosophic works, I am interested in the Objectivist view of the state of our society today vs. how she saw and wrote about it 40 years ago.

Are things better or worse in your view?

Answer: At the time when Ayn Rand wrote most of her non-fiction (the 1960s), half the world’s population was under avowedly Communist or Socialist rule. "Business" was a dirty word to the rising generation, and the popular youth culture sought to drop out, make revolution, and get stoned. Philosophically, the culture was hurtling towards a nihilism that was eventually cashed out in the self-contradictory nonsense of the "postmodernist" movement. Meanwhile, it was uncommon for women to succeed in a profession and racism was an acceptable cultural practice for many.

So let’s consider how things have changed.

The fall of Communism has meant that Capitalism has no directly competing social system to face. This does not mean that laissez-faire is triumphant, but over the last several decades there has been a worldwide trend toward increased economic freedom. Chinese Premier Deng Xiao Ping led the breakup of Communism in his country with the saying: "No matter if it is a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat." There is no question today that the market can "catch mice," i.e., provide the basis for creating wealth. Even President Obama, who has stronger Leftist credentials than any president since FDR, has said that government ownership of private firms doesn’t work and that the private economy is an engine of growth. Contrast that with the fear that permeated the educated classes around 1960, when Soviet Premier Khrushchev could declare, with a straight face, that the Communists would "bury" the West.

Culturally, along with economic liberalization, there has been a rise in the ideal of the entrepreneur. The tech-driven boom that grew out of Silicon Valley has, along with the buyout culture that arose on Wall Street, made heroes out of some wealthy businesspeople and has made many think of profitability as a basic sign of sustainability. (For example, Google’s charitable foundation invests in for-profit projects.)

Just as it has taken business as a model for admirable living, so has the culture turned to some degree away from hedonism and nihilism. Drug and alcohol abuse have declined, as has violent crime. Rationality remains under assault, but the worst anti-rational trends in academia have abated somewhat. The Western intellectuals have seen the abyss, and blinked. It’s also true that the attacks of September 11, 2001, made a wide range of people reflect seriously on the shared Enlightenment-based ideas that the West really stands for.

Finally, I think we should be pleased that racism has been on the decline culturally and that sex roles have become more fluid. All these are signs of a culture that takes the individual as the measure of mankind; that’s a key Objectivist value. The increase in tolerance for homosexuality is another positive sign. Generally, individuals, particularly in America today, are less constrained by family, tradition, sex, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity than was true in the past.

That’s the good news. But it’s not all roses by any means.

Ayn Rand pointed out that destructive cultural forces rested on a three-part axis of values:? mysticism-altruism-collectivism. And that remains true today. The West faces an avowedly religious, self-sacrificial, collectivist enemy in Islamism and other fanatical religious movements. Within the West, there is a Rightist fundamentalist movement whose strong commitments to religious literalism and Christian ideals are incompatible with individualism, science, and freedom.

Eating away at our culture from the Left is the Green movement. This features an irrational hatred of industrial civilization, the promotion of a moral ideal of self-abnegation, and a politics that favors strict economic controls. Greens regularly advocate a society that is poorer and less populous, with less technology and less material freedom. The Greens have captured the hearts of many educated urbanites, and they dominate among the academics and the journalistic classes. Fortunately, the public still values life and human well-being (including health and economic growth) more than the floating abstraction of "the environment." But with Green-leaning politicians now in charge of many governments, we can expect much suffering in the future of the kind presaged by 2007-08’s world food shortages—which were caused by Green- inspired bio-fuel requirements in the West.

Our politics have become a kind of populist pressure group warfare over economic incentives and government handouts. Fans of solar power want big discounts for their cause. Seniors want cheaper health care, no matter who else has to pay for it. In our economic crisis of 2008-09, business firms—especially the least well managed—are scrambling to get a piece of the pork pie on offer in Washington. When radical reformers like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher get a hold of power, the best they can do is to restrain the growth of government spending; they are unable to roll it back significantly.

Since Rand began writing, the share of government in the U.S. economy has risen steadily. In 2009, it looks set to rise quite a bit more. All this means that we live in a culture where people look to the government to solve their problems and think the government is specially anointed to succeed where ordinary individuals cannot. Since government, when it exceeds its proper functions, is nothing but a robbery scheme, this trend cannot be to our ultimate benefit. Worse, it means that more and more working people see the government, rather than themselves, as their source of employment and their caretaker. It’s an acid eating away at our once-self-reliant society.

We also have a long way to go before we have fully realized the ideal of an individualist culture. Racism, sex-prejudice, and other types of groupthink have declined, but they have also been enshrined in "affirmative action" preferences and a variety of government programs that single out people based on their ethnicity or sex.

Finally, though the intellectuals have blanched at outright nihilism, the systematic philosophical views most dominant today imply it logically. So for strong moral voices, we have expressivist ethicists like Simon Blackburn. He shouts his moral views in a loud voice. But he also argues that morality, when you get right down to it, is nothing more than shouting: It certainly has no basis in our nature or the facts. Many of our strongest defenders of reason and science are Humean empiricists who believe that reason is the slave of the passions and that logic and science rest on an arbitrary leap of faith. With these kinds of defenders, reason and morality don’t need enemies.

World culture has made progress in shedding some of the worst manifestations of mysticism-altruism-collectivism since Rand’s time. But as long as the dominant cultural ideologies remain skeptical of reason as a guide to living, as long as they idealize self-sacrifice and service to others, and as long as they look to society to complete the individual—rather than seeing the individual as the source of all that is healthily social—it should be clear that there will be tough cultural battles ahead.