Friday, March 30, 2012

Money Talks

I know I'm remiss in writing about Atlas Shrugged. It's been much, much too long since I've written anything here. A big part of it is that, concerning Ayn Rand and her style, I've felt like I'd run out of things to say. The Fountainhead, whatever its many faults, was notable for being the first time Rand had gained some control over what she wanted to say and how she wanted to say it. Atlas is more confident still, I suppose, but there's little new to it. The result is an even more reductive view of humanity, and therefore even less convincing storytelling, and so there hasn't been much to say about its style that hadn't been said already.

That said, the only thing worth chewing on are the ideas, as wrong-headed as they are. And voila! Almost four hundred pages in, and finally one of Rand's interminable monologues makes an appearance. (I really am happy to come across it; Rand's philosophy, such as it is, is wrong in interesting ways, while her narrative is endlessly dull. At least in a several-page monologue one can drop the pretense that there is a dramatic purpose being served.)

The logorrhea in question is the infamous money speech given by Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian d'Anconia (try to read that name without giggling). Like much of Rand's Objectivist project, it is a great deal of blood and thunder in elaborate defense of something most people simply take for granted. Most people would not dispute the importance of money as a system of exchange. Some might subscribe to the notion that money in itself is the root of all evil, but this would be vanishingly small minority. And yet, here is Senor d'Anconia, taking four-and-a-half uninterrupted pages to refute a non-opinion.

Trying to disprove Ayn Rand almost feels like a concession in itself, that to engage her is to grant her ideas legitimacy. But given that in some circles she is taken very seriously--House Republican budgetmeister Paul Ryan requires his staffers to read Atlas Shrugged--it thus is necessary to prove just why her ideas are so rancid.

To begin:

"So you think that money is the root of all evil?" said Francisco d'Aconia. "Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can't exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?

Right there the problem immediately presents itself. Money is the form by which goods and services are exchanged and compensated, yes. But Rand is categorically unable to deal with exceptions, ambiguities, or shades of grey, and so she makes monetary exchange a moral imperative. Those who would ever ask any kind of charity or government aid--looters and moochers, in her pungent parlance--are thus the most reprehensible of beings.

Further on, though, she almost sounds reasonable, seeming to make the trite bromide (her word) that money won't buy happiness:

"Money will not purchase happiness for the man who has no concept of what he wants; money will not give him a code of values, if he's evaded the knowledge of what to value, and it will not provide him with a purpose, if he's evaded the choice of what to seek. Money will not buy intelligence for the fool, or admiration for the coward, or respect for the incompetent. The man who attempts to purchase the brains of his superiors to serve him, with his money replacing his judgment, ends up by becoming the victim of his inferiors. The men of intelligence desert him, but the cheats and the frauds come flocking to him, drawn by a law which he has not discovered: that no man may be smaller than his money. Is this the reason why you call it evil?

But alas:

"Money is your means of survival. The verdict which you pronounce upon the source of your livelihood is the verdict you pronounce upon your life. If the source is corrupt, you have damned your own existence. Did you get your money by fraud? By pandering to men's vices or men's stupidity? By catering to fools, in the hope of getting more than your ability deserves? By lowering your standards? By doing work you despise for purchasers you scorn? If so, then your money will not give you a moment's or a penny's worth of joy. Then all the things you buy will become, not a tribute to you, but a reproach; not an achievement, but a reminder of shame. Then you'll scream that money is evil. Evil, because it would not pinch-hit for your self-respect? Evil, because it would not let you enjoy your depravity? Is this the root of your hatred of money?


"Or did you say it's the love of money that's the root of all evil? To love a thing is to know and love its nature. To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you, and your passkey to trade your effort for the effort of the best among men. It's the person who would sell his soul for a nickel, who is the loudest in proclaiming his hatred of money – and he has good reason to hate it. The lovers of money are willing to work for it. They know they are able to deserve it.

Three-and-a-half years after the economy went kablooey, it really should not need pointing out, but: the financial crisis was in large part caused by Wall Street's collective pursuit of profit by any means, including fraud, "pandering to men's vices" and, sure, "man's stupidity." How else would one characterize AIG's rubber-stamping AAA credit ratings on bad mortgages that were then bound together in Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs), which were then further bound together in CDOs made of CDOs (CDOs-squared), the true value of which no one actually knew?

Therein lies Rand's critical flaw: her assumption (once shared by her protege, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan) of the absolute rationality and virtue of profit-seekers, never considers that when money is no longer seen as a means of exchange but an end unto itself, the means become corrupted. Money no longer reflects the actual value of a service, because the service is being intentionally degraded to inflate its value, whether that means shortchanging the workers who produce a good or skimping on quality for the people buying it. Rand experienced this firsthand with the Broadway production of her play Night of January 16th, in which the producer bowdlerized and rewrote her script in the interest of making the play more punchy and commercially appealing. The tension between Rand's love of the capitalistic ethos and her idealized creativity is one of her many, many ironies.

Towards the close of the speech Rand's romanticized view of money-making tips straight into ahistorical shit-crocking:

"To the glory of mankind, there was, for the first and only time in history, a country of money – and I have no higher, more reverent tribute to pay to America, for this means: a country of reason, justice, freedom, production, achievement. For the first time, man's mind and money were set free, and there were no fortunes-by-conquest, but only fortunes-by-work, and instead of swordsmen and slaves, there appeared the real maker of wealth, the greatest worker, the highest type of human being – the self-made man – the American industrialist.

Again, to be filed under 'it should go without saying that...': anyone who claims that America was founded on "no fortunes-by-conquest, but only fortunes-by-work," is either a vicious and cynical liar or the most delusional fanatic. Rand fooled herself as much as anyone else, so she would probably be considered the latter. In any case, her notion that the United States was not founded on slaves should disqualify her from all consideration as a serious thinker. Instead she is the philosophical godmother of the Tea Party, and some of the most powerful members of the current Republican party.

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