Full-blown capitalism shrugged off for socialist hybrids
By Lars Seier Christensen
I am going to start by quoting someone who is not my favourite politician. I consider him a very significant part of the problem we currently face more than ever. But at least he did us a favour by underlining just exactly how relevant and important a voice Ayn Rand is even today, more than 30 years after her death.
Let me quote the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, for the first and last time this year, I promise.
“Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we’d pick up. Then, as we get older, we realise that a world in which we’re only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else, in which we’re considering the entire project of developing ourselves as more important than our relationships to other people and making sure that everybody else has opportunity — that that’s a pretty narrow vision. It’s not one that, I think, describes what’s best in America.”
Barack Obama says Atlas Shrugged is a book often read by 18 year olds who feel misunderstood. Photo: spirit of america / Shutterstock.com
We will get back to who has the greater vision for America and human life, but I have a confession to make. I did not pick up Ayn Rand as a misunderstood or insecure 17 year old. I wish I had, but unfortunately, I was a 38-year-old man when I first read Atlas Shrugged. And to some extent insecure, I will admit.
I still remember clearly how my Chief Economist, the outspoken and very politically incorrect, Steen Jakobsen, threw a paperback on my desk after the summer holidays, soaked in sun oil, and told me: "This book, you HAVE to read."
I did and it was a terrific experience, as it is for many when they are first exposed to Rand's thinking. Now, when I say I was an insecure 38 year old, it was in a slightly different sense to the insecurity of a high school kid. I had my own business, was married with four kids and had formed strong views about society and politics. Incidentally, it was not much different from the views I hold today. But I always had an underlying worrying concern about what was the real foundation and justification of the views I held. Whether it was only my particular circumstances, ambitions and career path that had led me to be a life-long fan of individualism, freedom and capitalism. I would never have admitted it, of course, but I did think about it from time to time.
This is a question that most political and philosophical writings at best don’t answer or, at worst, answer with a confirmation that, yes, indeed, it is random and only a result of your situation and environment which world view you choose.
Ayn Rand's answer to that question is fundamentally different. Her answer is that as a rational being, as a man and not an unthinking animal, you have to choose the path of freedom and individualism. Not just because it works better, not just as a utilitarian observation, but because it is fundamentally in your nature and because it is right. It is a necessity for you to fulfill all you can be as a man and it is a necessity for your survival. The use of your mind and the observance of reality and influence thereon by your mental capacity — it cannot lead to any other logically correct conclusion or result.
So in other words, Ayn Rand removes your insecurity about whether your choices are right and unavoidable or just random and fickle. She provides a philosophical foundation for what most other commentators only present as a utilitarian argument — individualism and capitalism simply work better than collectivism and socialism. Very few advance the moral argument, but that is ultimately the real argument.
That is a very important distinction that has profound consequences. And that begins to reach out for an explanation of The Big Disconnect — why is it that in spite of socialism failing so completely again and again, why is it that in spite of capitalism and freedom improving people's lives and creating wealth and welfare wherever it is applied, even with that knowledge and experience — we have to fight new attacks on freedom, year after year, decade after decade? The attacks come in different disguises, but always with a moral root — capitalism is evil, it is destructive, it is egoistic, it is anti-nature. We ourselves, on the other hand, fail to advance the moral argument, but the opponents of capitalism always sell their rotten philosophical goods by claiming a higher moral ground, altruism and the need for control of human freedom to protect man against himself by handing over responsibility to collectivists and anti-individualist leaders who know so much better than the rest of us. With enough moral high ground claimed, there is no need for any clear explanation as to why or how they would know better and there is no questioning of why the leadership should necessarily fall to them.
This is an ancient problem and has recurred in different ways throughout the centuries. Right now, we are seeing a solid revival, a significant pushback against all the advances that were made when the Iron Curtain came down and the despotic leaders of the Soviet Union and their satellites were overturned. Some of us foolishly though that this was the final victory for capitalism and freedom and that surely the world would move quickly in a better direction, while the remaining dictatorships would collapse before too long.
It hasn’t worked out that way, we can conclude. In fact, maybe the disappearance of that very obvious enemy and obvious failure of the Soviet Union has had the opposite effect. Without a strong example of how inferior socialism really is, many people again believe that it is the solution to problems in the West and if capitalism could be reined in, we would all experience a better and more fair society.
Well, there are multiple fallacies in that view. First of all, free capitalism has not really been experienced by many people alive today.
The strange hybrid of western societies today allows only limited capitalism to create enough wealth to support a wider range of political and social ambitions, largely controlled by anti-capitalists. Secondly, of course we know by now — indisputably — that socialism doesn’t work.
Full-blown socialism doesn’t work at all, while lesser degrees of socialism restrict to a higher or lower level the creation of growth and prosperity. Thirdly, socialism is not fair, equality in outcome is not fair. Equality in opportunity is indeed fair, yes, but if the outcome is then collectivised and shared irrespective of effort and dedication, fairness completely ceases to exist.
To hear a US president say that it is wrong to “consider the entire project of developing ourselves as more important” than a set of social obligations is rather disturbing and it goes to show that the malady that has long beset Europe is spreading rapidly to the US.
Before turning to the particular relevancy of Ayn Rand to the current economic and politicial debate, I would like to talk a little about her relevance not just for individuals, but also for the benefit of multiple forms of cooperation with others that such individuals may choose by their own free will. More specifically, we realised in our business that her ideas also hold plenty of relevance and opportunity for commercial organisations.
I am the co-founder and co-CEO of Saxo Bank, an international investment and trading bank with offices in 25 countries, headquartered in the socialist country of Denmark. With that kind of base, and more than 50 different nationalities among our employees and clients from all over the world, my partner, Kim Fournais, and I early on felt it was necessary to specify a set of principles and values to ensure that our business developed in a sustainable and coherent manner. A way in which we could benefit from the diversity of our employees and clients without the many differences leading to confusion and chaos in the organisation. When you are from many different cultures and spread over many different locations, it is valuable to operate from a set of agreed principles. In fact, successful organisations do that intuitively, but it is good to be explicit about exactly what those principles are.
The good thing is that capitalism brings people — by their own choice — together with joint goals, which makes sense for everyone and benefits the employer, employee and client alike. As a result, finding common ground is easier than if we were a political organisation or a cultural or religious forum. In fact, we have representatives of every major religion, culture, nation and race among our employees and although we face issues from time time, like any other organisation, they are never really based on those differences. It is a given that in a meritocratic organisation it is the results, the ethical behaviour and the productive efforts that count over and above and anything else.
Tomorrow in part two: Lars explains the Seven Values of Saxo Bank, which are based on Ayn Rand's Seven Virtues.