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Book Review: The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis by Darryl Cunningham, introduction by Michael Goodwin

July 18, 2016

The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial CrisisThe Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis by Darryl Cunningham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Michael Goodwin describes the fiction of Ayn Rand as “cartoonish,” and Cunningham shows this is quite apt. It’s pure fantasy that a court, at least in Rand’s time, would have dismissed the charges against Howard Roarke. Perhaps now, if he were rich enough, they would have.

Cunningham makes Rand a pathetic figure, duped by her dishonest mother into giving away her toys on the false promise that they would be returned to her, kind of like when Congress, under the influence of Rand, took away people’s social security to give it to billionaires.

Rand claims, “No one helped me, nor did I think it was anyone’s duty to help me” (9), but Rand was lying through her teeth.

She was helped by many people during those early years. She stayed with her relatives in Chicago for six months. She failed to repay, or even offer to repay, small loans given to her. The family, through their connection with a film distributor, managed to supply Rand with a letter of introduction to the DeMille organization in Hollywood. They also paid for her train fare to California and initial living expenses. None of this help was acknowledged by Rand in her later years. (9-10)

Even though a script reader accurately found her stories “far fetched” and characters “not human enough,” DeMille, having met Rand and cast her as an extra, hired her anyway (12), and she wrote and was paid for an unproduced screenplay called Red Pawn (12-13). Talk about privilege! She wrote crap no one wanted to produce and got paid for it, all because of a family connection, while I, with a master’s degree in film, get stuck in a homeless shelter. Where is the justice in that? Her books are fantasies of individual achievement, by and for, Goodwin argues and Cunningham implies, people who want to believe they have achieved things on their own and generally have not.

The book contains graphic synopses of both The Fountainhead, which seems considerably stupider than the 1949 King Vidor film I saw in 2005 and which, Cunningham notes, Rand disowned, and Atlas Shrugged, which I won’t go into, other than that he makes it appear that they have zero literary value and are only of interest because of their influence. Even conservatives of the day were outraged by Atlas Shrugged when it first appeared. Whittaker Chambers of National Review, which now seems fringe in its right-wing extremism, said, “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard… commanding: ‘To a gas chamber–go!'”, which seems in line with the objectivist trolls on Twitter who tell me I should kill myself because I can’t find a job. Robert Kirsch of The Los Angeles Times is also quoted, “It would be hard to find another such display of grotesque eccentricity outside of an insane asylum. John Galt is really arguing for a dictatorship.” Cunningham tells us that Rand had not expected her work to be compared to fascism, and “fell into a deep depression,” which further suggests that Rand was dishonest, even to herself, or incredibly unintelligent. It is unfortunate that she got her wish to “profoundly change the American political scene” not long after her death (the above all cite p. 37).

Although I completed the first draught of my play, Misused Minds: Curse of the Educated Youth in 2004, I got the impression from Cunningham that I was intuitively parodying Rand based on his retellings of her work.

Much has been made of the fact that Rand sought and received social security toward the end of her life. She is accused of hypocrisy, of being one of the very moochers and takers she so despised. But it was her view that this was a system she had paid into against her will and that she was merely taking back what was hers to begin with. In other words, it was exactly what the majority of people do when they apply for social security or any other welfare benefit, yet Rand still thought of herself superior to the masses she saw all around her. Rand’s life was full of such contradictions. Her novels were high-minded and philosophical, yet also full of soap opera trashiness, overwrought emotion, and thin characterizations. She trumpeted the virtue of reason or emotion, but was unable to rise above jealousy and was unforgiving toward anyone she believed had slighted her. She upheld an individual’s freedom above all else, yet ran her immediate circle of friends like a small dictatorship, where opposing views were not allowed and where dissent was punished with expulsion. Rand prided herself on the ability of her senses to discover the truth of the world, yet she failed to see through her lover’s deceit, even though the evidence had been in front of her for years. It did not concern Rand that the economic system she promoted would enrich only the few at the expense of the majority. For her, unrestrained free-market capitalism was a moral system in which the undeserving poor suffered the consequences of their own inaction. It was only right and proper that those who made no effort in life should live in poverty. (63-66)

Cunningham proceeds to describe how Rand’s so-called morality allowed Libertarians and the Cato Institute to “live guilt free with their indifference to those with fewer opportunities than themselves” (67).

The next section details how that economic crash of 2007 was caused by exactly the values that Rand espoused, such as the push from the right to ensure that derivatives went unregulared, on the grounds that it would be a hindrance to the free market–“if derivatives were regulated, capitalism would fall apart, [Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, and Lawrence Summers] warned. There would be market turmoil and risk couldn’t be managed effectively. They made the claim that by even talking about regulation, [Brooksley] Born was threatening the stability of the market” (98). “The phone call may have been illegal, as the [Commodity Futures Trading Commission] is an independent body” (99).

On pages 100-101, Cunningham quotes Greenspan’s (who was part of Rand’s circle) 1957 review of Atlas Shrugged at length: “Atlas Shrugged is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting,. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy… Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.” This mentality is astonishingly dishonest when it is applied to people who have been to college studied what they considered was their purpose and can’t find a job.

In 1966, Greenspan wrote three essays for the Rand anthology, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal in which he equated government regulation with a breakdown of society’s morals. In his view, there was no need for the Securities and Exchange Commission, or the Food and Drug Administration. All regulations that protect the public from unscrupulous businessmen, even building codes, are unnecessary, he argued. The potential damage to a reputation is enough to keep a contractor from building unsafe structures. Greenspan goes on to say that it is a businessman’s greed that protects the consumer. The reputation of a company is often its major asset. If a business isn’t trusted, then it cannot prosper. This is even truer for a securities firm. Securities worth hundreds of millions of dollars are traded every day over the telephone. The slightest doubt as to the trustworthiness of the broker’s word or commitment would put him out of business overnight.

It is clear from these essays that Rand profoundly influenced Greenspan’s economic thinking. It also explains why, once he became chairman of the Federal Reserve, he took a hands-off approach to the regulation of derivatives–a decision that was to prove catastrophic to the world. (100-101)

Anyone who can take Greenspan’s claims seriously is a blithering idiot. Even Greenspan no longer can:

“I have made a mistake in presuming that self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.” You found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working. “That’s precisely the reason I was shocked, because I have been going for forty years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.” Did Greenspan genuinely believe that an unregulated financial sector pursuing self interest would lead the U.S. economy to a stable and optimal equilibrium? He did, and he held fast to these beliefs long past the point where the evidence should have alerted him to the truth. Selfishness is not a virtue to be embraced. Self-interest does not work to bring about human happiness on a global scale any more than it achieves it for people on the small interpersonal level where we all live our lives. The details of Ayn Rand’s life demonstrate this last point very effectively. (141-142)

On pages 133-137, he details the involvement of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, which Fox News demonizes as the major culprit, and thus blame the financial crisis on the government rather than private business, but notes that the flaws in this argument are that a) both companies were private businesses with shareholders that have only quasi-governmental ties, and b) that they were latecomers who did not contribute to the crash any more than the other players.

The events leading up to the 2008 crisis should have destroyed the fantasy that an unregulated financial industry will naturally channel money to its best uses, or that bankers’ concerns for their reputations will prevent them from placing their institutions or customers at rick. Sadly, this has not proved to be the case. There is still a strong belief on the right that the free market can solve all problems and that the financial crisis was caused by the last vestiges of regulation and government interference. They claim that only with the total repeal of interventionist laws and regulatory agencies can markets find their true value, so that people can prosper. This clearly flies in the face of reality. If the last thirty years have shown us everything, it is that free markets lead not to personal freedom, but to corporate freedom–a freedom that has been embraced countless times to pollute, steal, and oppress. (139)

The shrinking away of the state is a long-held libertarian dream, but one that can only continue the process of handing power over to unaccountable corporations–a prospect even worse than state tyranny, because, in a democratic government at least, the public has some kind of role. (147)

The next section of the book deals with the differences between conservatives and liberals based on how much like or unlike the Ayn Rand mentality they are. This section is probably the most problematic, because Cunningham spends a significant amount of space (194-203) praising the Affordable Care Act without a peep about single payer, which makes me wonder if he is in the pocket of big pharma. I put his How to Fake a Moon Landing back on the shelf when browsing because he argued unconvincingly and contrary to my experience that medication is better for back pain than chiropractic.

Cunningham’s comparisons of conservatives to liberals on pages 151-153 seem to be a comparison between an unintelligent person and an intelligent one. To “have little problem dismissing any science that runs counter to their beliefs, no matter what the evidence is, or how well argued” (151) is part of his definition of a conservative. It is also a key factor in defining a stupid person. So is a belief that “the poor and ordinary are best motivated by less money” (151), while “the bedrooms used by liberals contained a greater number of books” points toward making liberal and intelligent synonymous, as does “a larger variety of types of music” (153), and “conservative offices were less stylish and less comfortable than those used by liberals” (153) again points to lack of intelligence. Paul Ryan would certainly qualify as an example, for denying he made a speech saying he makes all his staff read Rand that was recorded (I saw it myself on the Young Turks, and you can too, right here:…) only to claim it was an urban legend (179).

The best example of conservative stupidity is Tea Party founder Rick Santelli: “in his anger, Santelli had conveniently forgotten that it was the government’s nonexistent regulation of the derivatives market along with the greed of bankers and those in the mortgage industry, not government intervention that had cause the catastrophe in the first place” (184). Of course, this is the same group that started using “tea bag” as a verb and “tea bagger” as a self-described appellation until they learned that it had connotations of a non-reproductive sex practice. He shows how “corporate America has coerced the Tea Partiers to act against their own interests by having them vote into office politicians who openly favor big business and Wall Street over the people in their own communities who have lost jobs and homes” (187). This is the warped morality of Ayn Rand followers. “It is certainly wrong for anyone to live at the expense of another,” Cunningham says. “Unfortunately, right-wing politics often fails to make any distinction between freeloaders and the poor. The unemployed are treated with suspicion, while working people are increasingly denied a decent level of earnings” (192). “The tens of thousands who turned out to call for a reduction in government spending and taxation do not want to fall into poverty and have their children receive a poor-quality education and inadequate health care, but this is what a smaller state would mean. Tea partiers are unwittingly pushing the selfish interests of giant corporations, not people” (218).

It’s hard to see how a rational person could disagree with Cunningham’s conclusion:

Ayn Rand dreamed of a world unhindered by regulation, government, or concern for the disadvantaged. Many of the people who follow her philosophy don’t appear to realize, or perhaps care, that these ideas would create a grotesquely unfair society. America today has a shrinking middle class, an increasingly dominant billionaire elite, and a government corrupted by vast amounts of money. All of the ingredients are in place to create a new gilded age in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties (219). Ayn Rand was wrong. Selfishness is not a virtue. Altruism is not a moral weakness. Taxation is the price we pay for civilization. It’s time we rejected this selfish philosophy. (222-223)

The book contains an excellent bibliography of 47 sources, which Cunningham recommends reading in their entirety, although I don’t think I could stomach reading Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and We the Living, which are all included, although he does not summarize the latter. Rand biographers he cites include Barbara Branden, Jennifer Burns, Anne C. Heller, and Gary Weiss, as well as Alan Greenspan’s The Age of Turbulence.

Apart from the aforementioned glowing appraisal of the Affordable Care Act, the main fault I found with this book was with the artwork. The best artwork in the book is obviously lightboxed, while the characters are little more than stick figures with lower case bs for eyes. The image of Rand on the cover is reused several times for close-ups, with blatantly digital zooms, such as on page 7. Alan Greenspan is one of the few figures who doesn’t look completely generic. When I criticize an illustrator like Rob Liefeld, it’s in comparison to other illustrators, but most of the time I felt I could draw the scenes better than Cunningham, and I don’t even attempt to try to pass myself off as a professional line artist. I really feel the book would have been even more effective had Cunningham found a better illustrator and kept to the writing of the book.

Moe Tkacik, who wrote the excellent article for Reuters explaining why the law preventing the discharge of student loan debt in bankruptcy is unconstitutional, once told me that the only real way to succeed in white collar work, the only sort I can physically do, apart from in the arts, is to be “malleable, sycophantic, and shallow,” which she went on to say is “impossible to fake.” Rand herself “could only bear the company of sycophants who repeated her opinions back to her,” (Goodwin introduction, IV), and it seems these sycophants have taken over the business world with their perverse ideas, keeping millions of potentially excellent employees, especially young people, out of work, then blaming their situations, such as my homelessness, on the victims. If only they could see through to their own shallowness and foolishness, society could work so much better for all.

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One Comment
  1. I learned today (8/11/2020) that Cecil B. DeMille is my 8th cousin 2x removed, and I still don’t have Ayn Rand’s privilege, even though no one (mostly non-union actors) who has read my scripts have said anything remotely resembling that my stories are “far fetched” and my characters “not human enough.” In fact, one actor called them “too close to home,” and Philomena Muinzer, former dramaturg for England’s Royal National Theatre, said, “The fact that he has created three strong female characters to express his own life and theme, shows an element of artistic maturity. Three young women, well polarised, articulate, and in the case of one, tremendously physically anxious, who have ultra-modern, broad artistic, musical and pessimistic frames of reference, that create great acting opportunities for actors.”

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