Ayn Rand’s ‘philosophy of ‘Objectivism’ starts with the proposition that there is an objective reality that exists independently of consciousness and that human beings have direct contact with that reality through their senses. Even at the time she was building on these concepts, physicists were undermining them by demonstrating experimentally that, while there certainly is an objective reality, it is very much weirder than our senses would leave us to believe. The lethal combination of relativity and the quantum theory had destroyed for ever the apparent certainties of the Newtonian universe. That an electron can be simultaneously described as a wave and as a particle is clear evidence that the descriptions of reality that we derive from our senses are inadequate for describing the universe as it really is.
Nevertheless, most people would agree that there is a practical objective reality, that a knife is not a fork and cyanide is not sugar. It is only by recognising this that we are able to function as human beings. Rand, however, took things much further and, beginning from her first principle, managed to arrive at “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute”. Those were the principles that the heroes of her books, the Howard Roarks and John Galts, chose to live by, and if following those principles led them to destroy buildings that were intended to provide homes for those who didn’t have any, or depopulate most of the United States, then so be it.
There are other approaches to life.
In my early days as a geophysicist I was assigned the job of being flown around Papua New Guinea in a light aircraft, measuring the strength of the Earth’s gravity field at a network of points covering the entire country. Unsurprisingly, the aircraft’s pilot and I spent considerable periods in bars and pubs, engaged in deeply meaningless discussions on the nature of life, the universe and everything. The life philosophy he described in one of those sessions has stuck in mind ever since. He said “what I want out of life is to be able to go into a pub and order a beer without having to worry about whether I can afford it, because I will know that I can”. It seemed to me at the time, and still does, a very reasonable ambition, but few things could be further from the ceaseless strivings of Objectivism. Now Michael Sandel has published a new book, The Tyranny of Merit, which is, in effect, an intellectual endorsement of my friend’s point of view. Its focus is on the concept of meritocracy.
The Randian ideal state, the implementation of which forms the theme of ‘Atlas Shrugged’, is a uniquely nasty form of meritocracy, in which the people of merit, endowed with superior intellects and abilities (and, this being Rand, also endowed with Nordic-style physical perfection), feel no responsibility for anyone less fortunate than themselves. The Randian hero “will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine”. Sandel rejects not merely this sterile (one might even say inhuman) style of meritocracy, but meritocracy itself. And since meritocracy has become, effectively, the ruling philosophy throughout much of the world, it is worth hearing what he has to say. The point he makes is that in the philosophy of the meritocratic state, not only do those at the top deserve to be where they are, but so do those at the bottom. They haven’t striven as effectively. They haven’t taken the trouble to ‘better themselves’. They have resembled my pilot friend, who was totally uninterested in the possibility of ‘bettering himself’ by perhaps starting a company and ending up running an airline. That did not seem to him a sensible ambition, but one that would merely prevent him from enjoying life as much as he did.
Some years ago, another friend asked me to join his LinkedIn network. I had never even heard of LinkedIn but, not wishing to seem rude, I did join, but it is only recently that I have done anything more than log in occasionally to look at the sometimes stunning pictures of geological features that some of my fellow professionals enjoy posting. While searching for those, however, I have increasingly found myself also having thrust upon me the views of one particularly rabid Randian. Gilles Bourgeois was, it seems, once a petroleum engineer but he has now given up petroleum engineering in order to devote himself to flooding social media with his views. In his latest rants he seems obsessed with the idea that schools and hospitals (which should all, of course, all be in privatised Randian hands) are in danger of being taken over by ‘unionised postal workers’.
I have to say that I have never seen our local postal workers as threatening. In the post-offices there are some who can be less than helpful some of the time, but there are others who are more than helpful all of the time. Overall, they are just – people. As for the postmen and postwomen out on deliveries, in a rural area they are gold beyond compare. They are the first people to notice that Mrs Jones, who lives on her own since her husband died, has not been taking in her mail and may need help. But ‘help’ is not part of the Randian world view, and in John Galt’s Utopia the word ‘give’ was specifically forbidden.
If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it should have been that it is not the strivers, the hedge fund managers and outsourcing bosses that we rely on when the crisis happens. It is the mass of people who just get solidly on with the jobs without which society would simply fall apart. As Sandel has put it, far better than I ever could “This is a moment to begin a debate about the dignity of work; about the rewards of work both in terms of pay but also in terms of esteem. We now realise how deeply dependent we are, not just on doctors and nurses, but delivery workers, grocery store clerks, warehouse workers, lorry drivers, home healthcare providers and childcare workers, many of them in the gig economy”. We call them key workers and yet these are oftentimes not the best paid or the most honoured workers.” For Sandel, the honouring is as important as the pay, and while those at the sharp end may not entirely agree, it is long past time that the rest of us realised that ‘unionised postal workers’ deserve both pay and respect.