Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Without a morality of rational self-interest capitalism cannot be defended

Ayn Rand and the world she made, Anne C. Heller, Tranquebar Press, Chennai, 2010,567 pages, Rs 495, ISBN 978 93 80658 01 8.

Howard Roark in The Fountainhead became Ayn Rand’s first full-fledged individualist hero: a gifted architect who yearns to create bold new building, but is stopped endlessly by frightened conformists and envious schemers. With this novel, Rand became a cult hero. Atlas Shrugged followed, and together the two books have sold more than 13 million copies, and continue to sell 300,000 per year after three generations.
A good biography makes us look within, and Ms Heller’s book has made me reflect, especially on why I became a libertarian and a vigorous supporter of free enterprise. This book also served as a mirror, making me conscious of the flaws that I share with Ayn Rand, in particular an excessive and unhappy self-regard, and an insatiable desire to be ‘somebody’ and not ‘anybody’.
Like many, I read Rand’s The Fountainhead as a teenager, and could not help but be moved by Howard Roark, who is as American as Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield. He is determined, defies authority, hates mediocrity, and does not seek the world’s praise. He is ‘inner directed’ in an ‘outer-directed’ world, (a distinction I learned from the Harvard sociologist, David Reisman, who had used it to describe the conforming, salaried, American white collar office goer of the 1950s).

I quickly forgot Ayn Rand when I went to college and read serious philosophy. When her name came up in undergraduate conversations, I dismissed her as a writer of potboilers and propaganda. Like everyone around me in the mid-1960s, I passionately believed in Nehru's dream of a modern and just
India. But as the years went by, I discovered that Nehru's economic path was taking us to a dead-end. Having set out to create socialism, he had created statism. Later when I was working as a manager I found myself caught in the thick jungle of Kafkaesque bureaucratic controls, a story that I have told in India Unbound.
Thus, I came to admire free enterprise after decades of living under the inefficiency of Nehru’s ‘mixed economy’ or License Raj, as many call it. Whereas I turned against state control from economic compulsions, Rand came to free enterprise from her collectivist Russian experience. I rebelled against the inefficiency of socialism; she revolted against its lack of human freedom and individuality. My embrace of markets was a pragmatic decision; she sought in capitalism a moral foundation. Both of us ended in a suspicion of state power but our paths were different. For me political liberty was not an issue because India had uniquely embraced democracy before capitalism. Democracy came to India soon after 1947 but our love affair with capitalism only began seriously after the 1991 Reforms when we began to dismantle the socialist institutions of the License Raj.
Ayn Rand understood that free markets brought phenomenal productivity and prosperity, but to her it was a side effect. The real deal was that capitalism gave a person’s ‘natural, healthy egoism’ the freedom to enrich himself and others. ‘Selfishness is a magnificent force’, she declared. ‘I decided to become a writer – not in order to save the world, nor to serve my fellow men—but out of the simple, personal, selfish, egoistical happiness of creating the kind of men and events I could like, respect, and admire’, she wrote in 1945.

I must confess that I was not able to go as far as Ayn Rand in embracing individualism as a creed; nor did I become a votary of unbridled, laissez faire capitalism. I also think that her use of the word ‘selfishness’ was unfortunate (perhaps, because she learned English late in life after coming to
America). She would have been more effective if she had distinguished between ‘self-interest’ and ‘selfishness’. One would not wake up in the morning if one is not self-interested; but selfishness in ordinary English usage suggests the pursuit of one’s ambition at the expense of others. I suspect she meant the former sense of ‘self-interest’, which is a natural, rational instinct and which leads to healthy ambition without trampling on others (implied in more negative ‘selfishness’).
Unlike Rand, I set great store by enlightened regulation in the free market—regulation that brings transparency in transactions, ensures competition, catches crooks, but does not kill the animal spirits of entrepreneurs (as we did during the License Raj). Like ancient Greeks, Ayn Rand looked to human reason to distinguish the moral from the immoral to guide and protect human beings in this uncertain world. I look to the ancient Indian idea of dharma. My thinking on capitalism has been tempered by my encounter with the epic, The Mahabharata, which I read between 2004 and 2008.

Capitalism is still trying to find a comfortable home in
India and I believe players in the marketplace have a great responsibility to act with restraint, unlike Wall Street bankers in the recent global financial crisis. ‘Restraint’ is one of the meanings of dharma; so as is ‘balance’; both meanings of dharma appear in the Mahabharata. If human beings act with ‘balance’ there is harmony in society and the cosmos. India is still a half-reformed economy--huge sectors like real estate and infrastructure are still unreformed--and we need to keep reforming it, reducing the discretionary power of officials and politicians.
Successes of capitalism produce over time enervating influences when a generation committed to saving is replaced by one devoted to spending. Ferocious competition is a feature of the free market and it can be corrosive. But competition is also an economic stimulant that promotes human welfare. The choice is not between the free market and central planning but in getting the right mix of regulation. No one wants state ownership of production where the absence of competition corrodes the character even more, as Ayn Rand pointed out repeatedly. The answer is not to seek moral perfection which inevitably leads to theocracy and dictatorship. Since it is in man’s nature to want more, the notion of dharma teaches us to learn to live with human imperfection, and seek regulation that not only tames crooks in the market but also reward good behaviour. […]

I agree with Rand’s conclusion. Without a morality of rational self-interest capitalism cannot be defended. The problem of capitalism is the inability and the lack of courage of its defenders to defend it. It is difficult to defend the capitalist idea of the ‘invisible hand’ (made famous by Adam Smith) because the hand is, in fact, ‘invisible’. In contrast, equality and sacrifice for the masses are visible ideals.
As a libertarian, I have always admired the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. I agree with him that political liberty is founded on private property, free markets, and limited government. A Jewish refugee from Nazi occupied Austria, he had been a great social and economic theorist in pre-war Europe but was unknown in America. […] In her copy of Mises’ famous book, Human Action, Rand wrote ‘bastard’ in the margin because Mises preferred a practical, economic argument for capitalism rather than a moral one. [The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma Gurcharan Das (Paperback - Oct 4, 2010)]

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