Many years ago, I read Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” and in hindsight, it completely changed the path of my thinking.
Let me pause for a moment to take inventory on who is still reading. I mentioned Ayn Rand in my first sentence, so I assume a handful of readers decided to skip the bailing and just jump ship. If you’re still with me, I assume it means you either disagree with Rand but have an open mind, or are not offended by the mere mention of Rand’s name. I actually hope it’s a little bit of both. For those of you I lost, although you’ll never read this, I hope there comes a time when ideas contrary to your biases cause you to dive in more deeply to understand someone else’s perspective. Until then, best of luck in your utopia bubble.
Back to you, dear reader, who has stayed the course. Don’t worry, this is not going to be all about Ayn Rand. For the record, I have only read one of Rand’s books, and do not consider myself a “Randian” although I do find many of her ideas kickass, and others not so much. I felt it was important to begin by invoking her for three reasons:
- Reducing the reader pool to people with open minds,
- Reading “Anthem” changed my mind, and
- Rand once said that the “smallest minority is the individual.”
The last two items are completely intertwined for me, and have shaped my current political philosophy. More on that later.
Last week (I’d originally drafted this on 5/5/16 but had some blog tech issues and couldn’t post) , I read an article by Elizabeth Nolan Brown that summarized Nebraska Republican Senator Bob Sasse’s epic rant on the completely awful choices for President the American people will be faced with next November (Sasse says “there are dumpster fires in my town more popular” than Clinton or Trump). But something else he said stood out to me even more than that colorful one-liner:
“The main thing that unites most Democrats is being anti-Republican; the main thing that unites most Republicans is being anti-Democrat. No one knows what either party is for—but almost everyone knows neither party has any solutions for our problems.”
For me, sadly this is a broadly true assessment, and it’s the main reason I loathe all party politics. Humans are innately tribal. We all have tendencies to form bonds with people similar to us, join together for comfort, friendship, and security, and to defend each other when the other side tries to knock us down, even if the other side is justified. These bonds were a significant factor in the survival and evolution of our species. Tribalism is not necessarily always a problem. It’s the same mechanism that galvanizes us to join together to fight for and against causes that affect us. But in the modern world, in particular in the modern political world, this tendency manifests itself too often in defending our political tribes above everything else, even to the point of ignoring clear evidence to the contrary. I see far more knee-jerk defense of the tribe, or the tribe’s dogma, than I hear discussion of political philosophy, and the reasons for our viewpoints. Do we even know what our viewpoints are, or are we simply parroting the party line or the talking head of choice? The reason I hate political parties of all stripes, but especially the Democrats and Republicans, is that aside from having far too much power concentrated with two very similar authoritarian brands, they reduce us to being no more advanced than our tribal-bonded ancestors, relying on instinct to join together to protect the camp from perceived threats, rather than elevating the other aspects of our nature, namely our capacity for reason, logic, and nuanced thinking to creatively solve problems.
In short, at their core, all political parties force us to think as collectivists, and there is very little room for the individual, of which I am among the strongest champions.
This brings me inevitably back to Ayn Rand. Sorry if you thought I’d forgotten her.
If you have not read “Anthem” I would strongly recommend you do. There’s evidence “Anthem” inspired George Orwell’s dystopian masterpieces. Anthem is a quick, short read. It’s not a literary masterpiece. Rand’s native language was not English, and that comes through in her prose. But it does reflect her perspective as having been raised in the Soviet Union in a middle class Jewish household, and as someone who once lived under communist, authoritarian rule. Her father was a pharmacist whose business had been taken over by the state, and these experiences are reflected in “Anthem.” The story takes place in a fictional, dystopian world where there is no such thing as the individual. Even the word “I” is not allowed. All people refer to themselves as “we” and they have names that sound more like they came off an assembly line (Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000). They have virtually no choices in their lives. They are assigned jobs they cannot escape, and are told what is appropriate to think. Every aspect of their lives is centrally planned. They have no free will, no ability to change the course of their lives, and are beholden to the will of the state for everything.
Obviously, it’s an extreme example of even what Rand lived through in the Soviet Union, but as with all science fiction, it is meant to bring into focus ideas about our own lives we may take for granted. It did this for me as a tenth grader when it made me question what does it mean to be an individual? Living in society means living with other people, and therefore leads to conflict over how best to live with others. “Anthem” asked the question does living in society mean we must sacrifice being an individual for the perceived good of the people?
Based on my anecdotal observations, the answer to that question by many people today would be a very quick “yes.”
Modern western society emphasizes the “collective good” above the individual. That in order to achieve the collective good, ideas need to be generated by consensus. That equality of outcome is the highest standard for the collective good. That sometimes, or often, it is required and good to suppress an individual’s needs or wishes to achieve the best result for all of society.
I actually agree that the goal of achieving the collective good is noble. But where I diverge from (what seems like) most people (on the right and the left) is in thinking that the collective itself is like a single organism. In reality, there is no one thing that is “society.” Society can only ever be two or more individuals living together with some mutually agreed ways of interacting. So, Ayn Rand was correct when she said that the “smallest minority is the individual.” The only way, in my view, to maximize the collective good, is to maximize the autonomy of the individual without sacrificing the equal autonomy of another individual. Once equality of outcome becomes the most important goal, individual autonomy must naturally be reduced. We can’t have it both ways. But we can have equal protection to live as individuals with preordained, natural rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
No single person agrees with everything the group(s) they belong to supposedly believes. Party politics, religion, and so many other factions and types of GroupThink make it difficult to be an individual, especially when we’ve eroded the framework that promotes individualism, and in many ways made that very term a pejorative.
While this election cycle has been depressing for so many reasons, it has in some ways excited me. The appalling choices the Democrats and Republicans have given us encouraged some people –even some entrenched deeply in the parties themselves like Sasse — to break away from their collective safety net, and question what they really believe. It has encouraged them to think about why they support a candidate instead of following along the party line like lemmings. Perhaps when the dust settles, people will have reverted back to the status quo. Many of the #NeverTrumpers are already backpedaling, and the majority of people tend to vote based on who is the lesser evil of the party they align with, rather on the merits of the person.
The lesser evil is still evil.
As an individual, you must be able to live with the consequences of your choices, so I will not tell anyone who to vote for or against. I won’t even berate you if you vote for Hillary or The Donald. That is for you to decide. All I ask is that you take some time before November and think about what you as an individual believe in. What do you stand for? Does it matter more to you that your tribe wins, or does it matter that you supported a person who adheres to the framework within which you want to live your life? What is that framework?
Another wise piece of science fiction once posed two seemingly opposing viewpoints I feel are relevant. In Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (TWOK), Spock sacrifices himself, and while succumbing to radiation he recalls an earlier discussion he had with Kirk by saying “Don’t grieve, Admiral. It [his choice] is logical. The needs of the many outweigh…” Kirk finishes for him, “The needs of the few.” Spock adds, “Or the one.” This is a powerful endorsement that the group matters more than the individual, even if it means death.
In the next film, Star Trek: The Search for Spock (TSFS), after the crew of the Enterprise risks itself to get Spock back (in a complicated rejoining of his body and soul), Spock asks Kirk why to which Kirk responds, “Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.” This directly contradicts the sentiment in TWOK, and suggests that there are times one person is more important than the group.
It seems on the surface, TWOK endorses a collective way of thinking, whereas TSFS highlights an individualist way of thinking. But, if I may, I would rewrite these two lines of thought, and join them together in much the same way Spock’s mind and body were rejoined as two entities that can’t survive without the other, and say it this way:
“The needs of the individual, properly protected and left to flourish, lead to the good of the one, the few, and the many.”
That sentence, I believe, summarizes my current framework for successful human society. That is the lens through which I see all political decisions and ideas. That first there is no “we” without an individual person, without an “I”. Each person is constructed from a myriad of properties forming who they are, what they care about, what they think and want, and what they are capable and incapable of achieving. No single group, party, faction, or tribe can completely encapsulate each one of us. And we shouldn’t want, or need one to completely speak for us, either.
When you (and I) embrace our unique identities as individuals, and see each other as individuals first, society at large (whatever that really is) will thrive. Until that time, we are forced to endure the will of the tribes.
P.S. If you want to learn more about Ayn Rand and her philosphy (and common misconceptions about her), I recommend this 3-part interview with Yaron Brook (President, Ayn Rand Institute) on The Rubin Report: