I remember reading Ayn Rand many summers ago after my freshman year in college. I read "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged." At that time they seemed to make sense.
Re-reading them now, I realize they are based on false premises. They assume that progress is the result of the activities of a few very talented people, while the rest of the population are a crowd of mediocrities, some of whom impede progress by blocking the talented from producing great things.
What Ms. Rand clearly did not understand is that our great inventions seldom come from single geniuses who profit from them. The inventor of the sewing machine got very little profit. The modern electronic computer had no single inventor, but the men who were mostly responsible,including Alan Turing and his associates, got no profit whatever. The internet, which we are using right now, was the creation of numerous geniuses and subgeniuses and skilled artisans and technicians and grunt workers and a huge technical infrastructure that owes much to scientists rather than businessmen, scientists who never got paid much for what they discovered. And, please note, please emphasize, the government helped create the internet, through an agency called DARPA. Lo, behold Libertarians, the government.
What Ms. Rand clearly did not understand is that inventions do not take place in a vacuum. They rest on a foundation created by the hundreds of thousands of prior inventions, great and small, by our ancestors. Our materially pleasant way of life in the present is not the product of a few giants to whom we should bow down. It is the product of many human civilizations, over the last 10,000 years or so. The hive does not arise as a result of a brilliant queen and her court. It arises from the labor of hundreds of thousands of bees. No single bee is a genius. But working together with a common purpose they create an edifice far greater than an individual. Elevating the individual over the collective is simple stupidity and arrogance. However, and this is a big however, the collective should treat each individual with respect and not with brutality or unkindness.
There are some of us with a high income who think it is solely the product of the sweat of our brow, the fruits of our labor. Such thinking is straight out delusionary. Without the inventions of your forbears your life would most likely be short, nasty and brutish. Without the current efforts of millions of other living people, the infrastructure that you depend on would not function, food would not be grown, or transported, and your life would go back to the life style of 10,000 BC. Short, nasty. brutish.
Ayn Rand doesn't seem to understand any of this. In her view, modern society consists of a mass of hungry faceless mouths, and a few great geniuses who feed them. She has no grasp of our interdependence. It is totally amazing to me that powerful men such as Alan Greenspan or Paul Ryan could be seduced by such a shallow and inaccurate understanding of the world.
Personally I am a mixed economy guy, who thinks that in modern societies, we need both a private and a public sector, and that it is extremely counterproductive and dangerous to demonize either sector. Communists demonized the private sector, and certain factions of the modern conservative movement demonize the public sector.
I think a properly regulated private sector is great, a source of invention and innovation and dynamism, to be loved and cherished: not overregulated; but not underregulated either: the private sector contains a mix of people who range from honorable to scum, some of them extremely fair and kindly, some of them opportunists who would sell their mothers for 10 cents. Greed is not good. We need protections against bad products. Against monopolies and price fixing. Against fraud. We need an end to the philosophy that the sole purpose of an enterprise is to maximize shareholder value while ignoring the interests of other stakeholders. We need the kind of business practices advocated by my friend Robert H. Girling in his book "The Good Company".
I think a properly regulated public sector is great, as a backstop that corrects the failures of the private sector, to provide a social safety net, to fight against fraud and abuse in the private sector, to protect labor, to correct market failures,to provide infrastructure, and to try very hard to enforce the golden rule, that no one should be treated unkindly. To be properly regulated, the public sector needs to be transparent, and the public needs to be constructively vigilant: I emphasize constructive vigilance because there is a whole cottage industry of destructive vigilance, whose sole aim is to discredit government, rather than to make it better. (When I say "failures of the private sector" I especially mean: [a] failure of the private job market to provide full employment at a decent wage; [b] failure of the private sector to provide decent health care for everyone.)
I think that the central goals of any properly regulated economy should include the following: ensuring that no one goes hungry or homeless, or is treated with brutality either in public or private, that everyone has the full protection of the law, and will be judged fairly if accused of transgression.
I repeat, without the current efforts of millions of other living people, the infrastructure that you depend on would not function, food would not be grown, or transported, and your life would go back to the life style of 10,000 BC. Short, nasty. brutish. And so, and this is a very very important so, if you earn a huge amount of money, you should not resent having a large part of your income being taken away from you and redistributed to the rest of the community, to make it function better, to raise the general quality of life, to make sure that no citizen is hungry or going without medical care. You should not mindlessly strive to have taxes reduced because it increases your pile of gold. Sure, you should scrutinize how taxes are spent, but you should not oppose taxation in principle.
Increasingly we are living in a labor surplus economy. You can see this as more and more people move into truly menial occupations like dog grooming and dog walking and nail salons and tattoo parlors, Or telemarketing. Government does not need to shrink, in order to lower your taxes, which is a primary article of faith among our Republican brethren. Government needs to grow to absorb the growing pool of surplus labor, to put that pool to good use doing really useful things like medical research, basic scientific research, intelligent space exploration. We should be doing huge things like that.
Also, government should boost the little things that raise the quality of life for people with lower incomes. Swimming pools for the heat of summer. Free parks, to spend time in. Good landscaping of the urban landscape. Strong but respectful policing, providing sufficient police for each neighborhood to provide effective crime solving and protection of persons and property. Good roads in every neighborhood. Renewal of deteriorated housing. Proper legal aid to indigent defendants. And full reimbursement to defendants who are acquitted and who have paid their lawyers their life savings. And avoidance of ridiculously long custodial sentences. And, more than anything else, full employment at a decent wage, with full maintenance of income during periods of unemployment (i.e. keep income constant if someone loses their job: but insist they do an equivalent number of hours work for government or a nongovernment entity.) Loss of earnings is a major destroyer of families and needs to be addressed.
The world created in Ms. Rand's novels is the invention of a person deeply traumatized by the Russian revolution, who lost property and social status, intended as a warning to America of the perils of collectivism. But her understanding of the real world was pathetically weak, and is a reason why her disciples should be regarded with utmost skepticism.