Capitalism vs. The “Public Good”

The following essay by Slade Mendenhall, “Capitalism vs. The ‘Public Good'” was a Third Prize winner in the 2010 Atlas Shrugged Essay Contest hosted by the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, California.

Of all that is to be derived from the teachings of Ayn Rand, no maxim may be as crucial, nor as rarely appreciated, as the belief that a good idea improperly defended is more dangerous than any wrong one. Accordingly, it was not Rand’s advocacy of reason in epistemology, objective reality in metaphysics, self-interest in ethics, nor of capitalism in politics which marked her as the most radical philosopher of the twentieth century. It was, instead, the nature of her comprehensive and impenetrable defense of each of these, her primary tenets, which set her apart from Descartes’ concept of reason independent from experience, Platonic realism’s utterly distorted defense of objectivity, Nietzsche’s contradictory adherence to self-interest via sacrifice, and, most auspiciously, from Jeremy Bentham’s errantly pluralistic support of capitalism for achieving, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” The full and heroic assertion of Rand’s philosophy could not have been embodied in a work more eloquent nor more profound in scope than was achieved by her crowning literary epic, Atlas Shrugged. Its very creation stood as proof of the greatness which Rand so admired in man, a greatness which she perceived as possible to many yet patently individualistic and, when exercised, done only by the virtues of a single mind- unfettered, unimpeded, independent, and fully deserving of the fruits of its own accomplishment. Her praise of capitalism as the greatest of political systems rests not upon a populist, pragmatic veneration of the “greatest good,” but upon a firm recognition of man’s unlimited right to the products of his mind and the necessity of a world in which that right can be fully exercised, free of obfuscation.

The numerous protagonists of Atlas Shrugged exemplify perfectly the virtuous qualities which Rand so admired: those of the producer, the highest, most profoundly moral role attainable to man. By the perfection and tireless efforts of his mind, each illustrated not only the intellectual feats of which he was capable but, as crucially, the strictest adherence to a moral code which asserted and refused to surrender his self-efficacy to the assailants of reason. In a world which told each of them that his noblest potential was to live in the service of some undefined collective “society” which despised his every virtue and sought to punish the good in him for being good, John Galt, Francisco D’Anconia, Ragnar Danneskjold, and their adherents reclaimed man’s title as sole proprietor of his own life, initiated a strike amidst the men of the mind, loosed Prometheus from his rock and taught his brother Atlas the need of adjusting his burden when those whose survival depends on his greatness seek to punish him for his strength.

Ayn Rand stood in full acknowledgment that capitalism could easily lay claim to having brought a more rapid, more significant rise in the standard of living to a greater portion of humanity than any political system which has ever existed. However, Rand argues, this standard of value is not the proper reason to advocate any action or belief, and is certainly not a sufficient defense for the most moral social system ever conceived. The pragmatism of those who advocate capitalism without reference to the morality which it entails (even necessitates) has, throughout its history, dulled Americans’ comprehension of the system in which they live and has given way to the muddling of the American concept of liberty with various forms of the altruist/collectivist ethics. This has correspondingly led to the formation of the semi-free, semi-statist mixed economy which exists today.

In proposing any course of action for the benefit of a “public good”, one abides numerous fallacies upon which the collectivist ethics rests. The first of these lies in the errant claim to the existence of such an entity as a “public”. Its incarnations are various- “public”, “society”, “the whole”, “the tribe”- but its meaning in ethics has been consistent: the belief in a being which is greater than the sum of its constituents and whose welfare is inversely related to their good. It is the highest calling to the morality of sacrifice. Rand, in response, rightly argued for the proper conceptualization of men as individuals whose metaphysical, epistemological, and, thus, ethical properties could not be abnegated by the arbitrary standard of their number. She recognized that “good” is an inherently transitive term- that is, one which necessitates an object which would answer the question, “Good for whom?” The answer to such an inquiry requires a series of judgments and evaluations, epistemological processes of which only a single, unfettered mind is capable. Any attempt to supplant the rights of an individual with the vague, undefined idealization of a public good does so by first supplanting his right to the most basic evaluative functions of his mind. The fact that the good is a patently singular quality and that there exists no “public good”, only individual benefits derived by each constituent member of that arbitrary grouping, proves that any view which claims to be holding the benefit of the masses over that of the individual abides a dangerous contradiction which indicts men more for every degree of greatness which they achieve.

Man, existing beyond the primitive level of animal instinct, is instead governed by a far higher level of cognitive functioning: reason. The extent of man’s success in life is dictated by the degree of his adherence to reason and no other process, nor any other man’s practice of this function, can supercede its necessity to his life. The pretense of action on behalf of a “public good” invariably takes the form of absconding with a man’s life or the products thereof by denying him the right to these judgments and evaluations, prescribing to him the morality of altruism and guaranteeing compliance through government’s monopoly on the use of force. The incarnations of this process range from the application of a sales tax to that of an income tax to the denial of a man’s right to the full measure of his success in business by the enforcement of antitrust laws which, for the sake of chastising the good for being good, punish both the individual and all with whom he so efficiently does business.

Tragically, it is an incomplete defense which attempts merely to safeguard businessmen against the slings and arrows hurled from the tops of ivory towers. Too often, and more so in today’s intellectual climate replete with altruistic Billionaire’s Pledges, the businessman is under assault from within and among his own ranks. There are far more Starnes heirs, James Taggert’s, and Orren Boyle’s than there are Simon Pritchett’s in our modern world- and, what’s more, their effect is greater. Willing to immolate themselves and one another, they need only the mild push of errant, immoral intellectualism to encourage them in a task which they seem ready and eager to see through. Adhering implicitly to the altruist/collectivist code, they hand away the right to their own time, effort, property, and life at the chance to repent for the meager few percentage points of profit they took away from all the good which they brought into the world. Faced with the prospect of murder, they choose suicide and, with their final breath, take the weight of their assailant’s guilt upon themselves.

The proper defense of capitalism is that which recognizes and asserts the rights of the producer to the full product of his labor. When a man endeavors to further his life through the expenditure of an immeasurable degree of effort and the exacting perfection of his mind, no whim, desire, want, or need of his neighbor’s can rightly claim the fruits thereof. The recognition of a man’s right to his own life necessitates the recognition of its component parts: his time, efforts both mental and physical, and the material resources which he utilizes in its sustenance- his property. For a collective to lay claim to these presupposes a moral right of the “public” to the life of the individual and demands that what he once would have endured for the good of a tyrant, he must now do for the sake of an undefined mass whose claim makes no pretense toward divine right or superiority- to the contrary, its qualifications are as arbitrary as number and need. If man is to succeed, it is his mind which must be reclaimed and empowered with a self-efficacy beyond the reach of pain or fear or guilt, beyond the limitless deeds which the altruists would place upon his being, and far beyond poisonous bromides which seek to subvert man’s reason to impugn his soul- none less meaningless or more dangerous than that of the “public good.”

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19 thoughts on “Capitalism vs. The “Public Good”

  1. Slade, first let me say great job! This is a well written essay and I completely agree with its’ point about the necessity of the moral defense of capitalism. I do, however, take issue with your dismissal of “the public good” as a feasible concept.

    First, I do agree that any mystical appeal to some “entity” which transcends its constituent parts is dangerous, obscurantist thinking, and thus I agree that “the public good” in this sense is meaningless.

    But if “the public” is taken to mean merely the collection of every individual within certain constraints (say, the jurisdiction of a political regime), then “the public good” can be said to mean the collection of “the good,” or more specifically, the interests of every individual. Now, insofar as the “public/common good/interest” is a singular thing, it must condense something from the constituent parts. We can therefore say: the “public good” is that which is in the interest of *all* or *a majority* (at least) of the individuals making up “the public.” This methodologically individualist definition is completely compatible with a capitalist/libertarian/Objectivist view; for example, the protection of private property rights is “in the common interest/is for the public good”; the abuse of eminent domain is not in the common interest.

    My point is that I don’t think Rand’s views or capitalism require abandoning the concept of the public good. The trouble comes in debating which interests are the most important, long run vs. short run, and whether intensity of benefit or harm should matter (i.e., do utilitarian considerations matter).

    1. And one more point–you bring up the subjectivity of value (” ‘good for whom'”), and then you proceed to affirm the value of individual rights. Why can’t the protection of individual rights be “the good”? (I know I’m playing with the distinction b/n “the good” and “the right,” but by the former I specifically mean “that which is in someone’s interest”; I don’t necessarily mean it to be connected to anything praiseworthy or excellent. Of course, any negative interest would automatically be rejected as being in the common good: even if a vast majority of people wanted to take all the property of say 5% of the population, this would not be in the common good because all persons share an interest/right to not have their property taken. Even thieves hate theft…

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