Reflections on Capitalism – Part III
By Nathaniel Branden - February 28, 2011

Why are they not celebrating the nobility of the entrepreneurial spirit and the power of the liberated mind to accomplish "miracle"?

Why are they not championing such life-serving virtues as independence, productive ambition, competence, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, integrity, and the drive to innovate?

Instead, they still talk as if we lived in preindustrial times, before anyone grasped that wealth could be created, and all one could do at best was share one's meager subsistence with a fellow sufferer, and the first traders and businessmen were looked on with scorn because of their concern with "material" reality. Perhaps, then, in the darkness and despair of the times, kindness and compassion were just about all human beings could offer to one another. Certainly they could not project new industries that would offer employment to millions of people, build communities, heal poverty, and create undreamed of possibilities of survival and well-being. But today the evidence is all around us – and if it is not acknowledged and appreciated then we have to wonder whether the amelioration of suffering is really the primary agenda of these exponents of enlightenment. Or whether other agendas are operating within them that enjoy a higher priority. With the best will in the world, I am unable to believe that blindness of this magnitude can be innocent.

It is not kindness, compassion, or selflessness that lift people out of poverty. It is liberated human ability – combined with perseverance, courage, and the desire to achieve something worthwhile and (sometimes) make money in the process. But of course such motives are not unselfish. And that is why they can accomplishes "miracles."

Kindness and compassion are virtues, to be sure, but what has carried the world and moved it forward, lifting humankind out of the cave and beyond a life expectancy of twenty-four – what has conquered disease and steadily lightened the burden of human existence – what has created and goes on creating new possibilities for fulfillment and joy on earth – is the rational, self-assertive egos of audaciously imaginative men and women who refuse to accept suffering and stagnation as our destiny.

If you doubt it, drop all our selfless politicians, social activists, and mystics into some jungle where people still live as they lived hundreds of thousands of years ago, barely able to scratch out subsistence and at the helpless mercy of every upheaval of nature, and invite these visiting humanitarians to create abundance.

"Even if everything you say is true," I am sometimes asked, "hasn't our progress generated new problems, new dislocations, instabilities, and dangers?" The answer is that every step of human progress creates new difficulties and challenges, and they can and will be overcome, but not by cursing the virtues that made the progress possible, not by curtailing the freedom that allows intelligence to function.

"But isn't there more to life than mere material reality?" The short answer is, of course. For a slightly longer answer, I will quote a favorite passage of mine from Atlas Shrugged:

You, who claim that you long to rise above the crude concerns of the body, above the drudgery of serving mere physical needs—who is enslaved by physical needs: the Hindu who labors from sunrise to sunset for a bowl of rice, or the American who is driving a tractor? Who is the conqueror of physical reality: the man who sleeps on a bed of nails or the man who sleeps on an inner-spring mattress? Which is the monument to the triumph of the human spirit over matter: the germ-eaten hovels on the shorelines of the Ganges or the Atlantic skyline of New York?

I will add: And if India has become economically more developed than it was forty-plus years ago, when the above passage was first published – if, for example, once-starving India has now become an exporter of food – who are the persons responsible: those who preached the renunciation of ego or those who fought for greater freedom for the individual? Those who lead ashrams or those who lead research institutes and business enterprises? Those who stare at of another dimension or those who work to transform this one?

If ego is the unifying center of consciousness, the faculty within us that thinks, judges, wills, and drives the process of achievement, then – before embracing selflessness as an ideal – reflect on the nature of a world from which ego has vanished, and consider whether it is a world in which you would wish to exist.

Right here, right now, is an opportunity to live consciously.

The purpose of this book is to examine the philosophical, ethical, cultural and psychological foundations of a free society – and to present the case for a new, self-responsible individualism.

By "a free society" I do not mean merely one, which describes itself as "democratic." I mean a society as envisioned by classical liberalism, something very close to the original American concept – a system based on the inviolability of individual rights, in which the function of government is to protect those rights and otherwise to remain uninvolved in human affairs. In the twentieth century this vision is called libertarianism.

This book is not primarily about politics. It is about the premises and values that underlie politics. Any political philosophy rests implicitly on a view of reality, a view of human nature, a set of ethical assumptions about how people should deal with one another, a theory of the relation of the individual to the state and of the proper role of government in human life. One reason why people have difficulty resolving their political differences is that they rarely get down to their underlying assumptions. It is those assumptions that I examine. What the book calls for is a re-evaluation of our values.

The primary focus of my writing has been psychology and ethics (e.g., The Psychology of Self-Esteem, 1969, now in its 32nd printing, or, more recently, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, 1994, and Taking Responsibility, 1996)). I have written a good deal about the importance to mental health of such practices as living consciously, operating self-responsibly, and living by enlightened self-interest; have explored the psychology of independence and autonomy, and have been an advocate of individualism; have argued that individualism is not the adversary of community but its necessary foundation; and have maintained that the moral goal of life is not self-sacrifice, or "service," but self-fulfillment. All of these ideas have implications for social policy and in this book they become lenses through which fundamental social issues are examined.

I first became interested in political philosophy and its cultural and psychological undergirdings when, a month before I turned twenty, in March 1950, I met Ayn Rand. She was forty-five at the time and in the midst of writing Atlas Shrugged. I had read The Fountainhead at fourteen and had been profoundly impressed by it – in particular by its heroic vision of man and of creative work, its individualism, its focus on personal integrity, and its opposition to much in American culture. I had written Rand a rather challenging letter, asking her a number of questions about her ideas, and she was intrigued enough to invite me to her home for a meeting.

I knew I was opposed to any form of dictatorship, be it of the fascist or communist variety; but I had zero understanding of free market capitalism. That evening I learned that when Rand spoke admiringly of capitalism she meant laissez-faire, not the mixed system we have in this country. She was an intransigent champion of the rights of the individual against the state. "What we have today," she explained, "is not capitalism but a mixed economy, part free, part controlled – nominal private ownership with a good deal of regulation by the government – a kind of fascism, in effect."

In the world in which I grew up, just about everyone I knew was politically left, and Rand's (implicitly libertarian) perspective was both utterly novel to me and enormously appealing intellectually. "I grew up in Soviet Russia," she said, "When, at the age of thirteen, I first heard the slogan that man must live for the state, I thought right then that this was totally evil and could lead to nothing but evil….I advocate a philosophy in which no one – no person, no group, no government – has the right to initiate the use of physical force or coercion in pursuit of its aims. Force is permissible only in self-defense and in response to its initiation." (These last two sentences represent the essence of the libertarian perspective.) Whatever disagreements or conflicts I was to later to have with Rand, a conviction that has never left me is the rightness of her vision concerning a noncoercive society.

A great many scholars have produced an impressive body of work developing the purely economic arguments for a free society. Central planning has been discredited. It has been shown time and time again that government efforts to regulate the economy not merely fail to achieve the goals projected but almost always achieve the very opposite of what was intended (as Nobel Prize winner George J. Stigler demonstrated in years of painstaking study). In terms of higher productivity, higher employment, higher overall standard of living, free markets have always proven themselves superior to any form of government-regulated economy. If people are still drawn to the idea that government can solve social problems, impose "correct" values, and lead us to the promised land, they are moved neither by historical evidence nor by economics but by moral considerations which they believe transcend "mere economics." They are moved by philosophical, psychological, or spiritual considerations that are rarely put on the table for scrutiny. This book examines these considerations in depth.

The United States was born as a child of the Enlightenment, and I maintain that a culture that upholds the supremacy of reason is an essential pillar of a free society. Such a society rests on a host of interrelated pillars – respect for reason, objectivity, science, and logic; the sovereignty of the individual; the necessity of personal autonomy and self-responsibility; high esteem for productive achievement and human ability; tolerance of differences; recognition of the right of the individual to exist for his or her own sake rather than as a means to the ends of others; and the nobility of each individual's pursuit of happiness on earth.

Everyone of these ideas has come under attack by twentieth century intellectuals who, as a group, have almost without exception embraced one version or another of statism – with tragic results. The root of the rebellion has been an assault on reason itself, which in this century has gone under such names as pragmatism, logical positivism, linguistic analysis, postmodernism, poststructuralism, deconstructionism, etc. Thus, today leading intellectuals announce that the distinction between science and fiction is illusory, and that all philosophical and scientific knowledge-claims have been "deligitimated" – we can never know reality "as it really is." However, this rarely inhibits their righteous certainty when it comes to discussing politics. (An example is the well-known philosopher Richard Rorty, who may insist that no one can be sure of anything but who nonetheless flies into a rage in print when politicians do not act as he thinks proper.)

The battle between authoritarianism and freedom is as old as history. Animosity toward trade, commerce, and business as low and vulgar pursuits, for instance, has existed for thousand of years. And the teachings of religion, which in some respects has also been hostile to a free society, are an important part of the story. (There are reasons why so many Enlightenment thinkers and many of our Founding Fathers were anti-clerical.)

What our world needs is a radical reassessment of our moral or ethical beliefs. I challenge the premise, espoused by just about every religious tradition, that compassion is the essence of morality. I demonstrate that no end of harm has been generated by this belief (without denying that in appropriate contexts compassion is a virtue.) In overrating compassion as the ultimate good, we have underrated such virtues as integrity, ambition, and productive achievement, which can be shown to make a far greater contribution to human life and well-being.

Central to this book is the advocacy of an ethics of enlightened self-interest as the necessary foundation of a civilized society – and as absolutely imperative for the challenges of the 21st century. But what this means specifically is far from obvious and requires considerable thought and discussion. "Enlightened self-interest" are words easy to misunderstand.

Let me share a story that played a part in inspiring this book.

A free society cannot survive if it does not hold a code of values that reflects this understanding; cannot survive without an appropriate moral foundation; cannot survive if its moral code is conflict with basic human needs.

In our world there is little alignment between our ethical concepts, our ideas of the good, on the one hand, and the requirements of human survival and flourishing, on the other. We celebrate a Mother Theresa and do not even know who Ernst Mahler was. Why this is so, and what kind of new thinking about ethics is needed, is part of the story I tell.

Having established a philosophical, psychological, and ethical foundation, the thesis I advance is that if reason, creativity, and self-esteem are the values most conducive to human well-being on earth, then they are best served and actualized in a libertarian society – a society in which the Mahlers of the world (as well as everyone else) are left free to function, without government involvement, and in which human ability is appropriately valued.

There are many questions that a reasonable reader can be expected to raise in the face of such an assertion – and I answer them. This takes us not only into ethics, psychology, economics, and history, but also into art, education, and culture. I will address questions pertaining to such current issues as feminism, "gay rights," and environmentalism.

The book begins with an overview of where we are today, socially, culturally, morally, and politically – and with an analysis of how these different elements interrelate and affect one another – and the critical problems that confront us on the threshold of the twenty-first century.

Then we pull back to a wide angle look at human history and at our evolution from life in a cave to life in a skyscraper. We consider: How and why did moral and political beliefs emerge? What were the problems, intrinsic to the human condition, to which they represented solutions? What needs do codes of ethics and social philosophy address? What have been the dominant moral and political assumptions throughout history and how did they relate to their historical context? On what view of human nature have they rested? What is our context today, how is it different from the past, and what new challenges demanding new answers now confront us?

And further, why is it so urgently necessary to rethink such issues as: What is the individual's proper relationship to society? What is the proper relationship between the government and the individual? What principles determine what governments ought and ought not to do? What are "human rights" and how are they derived and justified? (And if government intervention in our lives is to be radically restricted, if market activities are to be set free of government regulation, what safeguards would a libertarian society offer against, say, impurities in foods or medicines, or economic exploitation of children?)

In the course of the book I will touch on such issues as the following, although not necessarily in this order:

* To recognize that political-economic freedom is a practical necessity for our world is not yet a moral defense. Pragmatism is not a reliable or sufficient guardian of individual rights; there will always be cries for "exceptions." The twentieth century has been a battlefield of conflicting ideologies, of which the central one – the conflict between "the free world" and various totalitarian systems – can be identified as the struggle between individualism and collectivism in the political sphere. What made this conflict possible, and almost inevitable, were inadequacies and contradictions within the Enlightenment philosophy that generated a move toward increasing freedom, on the one hand, and a move toward tribal statism, on the other. For a free society to be sustained – so that this same battle in different forms is not fought over and over again – a new world-view, a new psychological vision, and a new ethical philosophy are needed.

* The United States of America was understood by its founders to be a great experiment in freedom. Jefferson observed that for the system to work, a higher degree of moral character in its citizens would be required than was required by any previous society. The traits of character that he evidently thought he could somewhat take for granted – self-responsibility, ambition, a capacity for deferred gratification, self-control, basic civility, a desire to cultivate the best within oneself – are in the twentieth century highly problematic, to put it mildly. This raises major questions to be addressed.

* The men who founded this country were profoundly suspicious of the tendency of governments to keep expanding in power, at the expense of the liberty of citizens – they warned against this danger again and again. And yet our century has witnessed a massive growth in the power of both state and federal governments. How and why did this happen? What are the contradictions in the American culture that have been present since the beginning? How has twentieth-century psychology exacerbated the trend toward statism and a denial of individual responsibility? (What have Freud and Skinner got to do with the welfare state? The answer is – plenty.) And why have artists and intellectuals so often allied themselves against the free market? And what has been the historical role of religion in this issue? Why has religion so often been on the side of "authority" against the individual? And why is the current "anti-government" trend in danger of self-sabotage and ultimate impotence in the absence of an appropriate moral/intellectual foundation?

* We need, first of all, a better understanding of the Enlightenment vision of "autonomous man." We need to place this idea on a realistic psychological foundation. We need to identify the conditions that give birth to rationality, independence, and self-responsibility as character traits, without which autonomy is impossible.

* We need to approach ethics or morality with the question of why do we need a code of morality? What purpose do moral values serve? Why should anyone choose to be moral? Without an understanding of this issue, anyone's moral position is just someone's say-so (faith or subjective preference): it is not rooted in reality or human nature. We need to grasp that morality is a necessity of human survival and flourishing. If we are to deal with reality (including other people) effectively, we need principles of action to guide us.

* And when we fully appreciate why this is so, we will have the foundation for an ethical philosophy. We will be ready to address the question: What values are appropriate to a being for whom reason is the basic tool of survival and of successful adaptation to reality? We will see, among other things, that religion is far from the best source of moral ideas. And we will be led to question: If such is the nature of man/woman, if such are the values proper and appropriate to this kind of being, what are the implications for social existence?

* And further: Why are governments necessary? What valid purpose do they serve? What principles determine the limits of appropriate government action? And this leads us to the philosophy of libertarianism.

* The treason of nineteenth and twentieth century intellectuals against reason, freedom, and the best of Western civilization – and the historical causes of this development.

Roughly the last third of the book will be devoted to a working out of the libertarian political philosophy, its basic principles, its relation to other political ideologies, its application to many of the burning issues of our day, and how that approach has evolved over the past fifty years and has already begun to affect our lives .

One of the theses I develop is that the more rapid the rate of change, the more urgent the need for traits such as rationality, independence, self-responsibility, and self-esteem (traits associated with individualism) – and the more urgent the need for political freedom. For hundreds of thousands of years human life remained essentially unchanged, except in minute respects. The smallest items of innovation or progress happened over generations – so that a person's life was more or less identical with that of his or her grandparents and the assumption was that one's grandchildren's life would be identical to one's own. The rate of change very slowly began increasing since the age of Classical Greece, with the birth of philosophy and the discovery of reason. However, prior to the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism, the role of the innovator was not factored into anyone's theories of "the good society." The role of the mind in human survival and development was not yet obvious. And the prevailing values (and political systems) reflected a predominantly stagnant view of life. In the last two centuries, sparked by the capitalist revolution, the pace of change has been accelerating. Today, the sum total of human knowledge is said to double every ten years, and scientific and technological breakthroughs are happening faster and faster. In the modern world, intellect, creativity, self-responsibility, and individual initiative are demanded and challenged as never before in history. We are living in a world in which an individual's mind is his or her chief capital asset; and while muscles can be commanded, minds cannot. Free minds and free markets are corollaries. You can run an a agricultural economy, even if badly, by command-and-control central planning. You cannot run a rapidly changing, globally competitive, information economy from a bureaucrat's office: you can only restrict men and women's freedom to exercise their intelligence. The more rapid the rate of change, the more deadly government regulations and bureaucracy are in obstructing innovation and progress. The more rapid the rate of change, the more urgent is our need for a culture that embraces the virtues and values associated with individualism. It is those virtues and values that are my chief focus, philosophically, psychologically, and socially.

All of my past books are a constant interweaving of theory and practice, of abstractions and "humanizing" examples that give them concreteness and immediacy – and this new book is no exception. This is not an academic tome for scholars. Rather, it is addressed to everyone who is concerned about the moral/political state of our country and of the world and is open to a fresh perspective and a new way of thinking. As a psychologist, I am keenly interested in what abstract moral, religious, or political ideas mean in terms of men and women's' everyday life. This is the focus of the book. Estimated length: 80,000 words.

I said in the beginning that this book calls for a re-evaluation of our values. By way of illustrating this idea further, I append the attached essay, "Reflections on Selflessness." It speaks to some of the issues the new book addresses.

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