On Capitalism and Ayn Rand, Part II

After nearly three weeks, I have resumed reading Atlas Shrugged. Cliche as it may be, I can’t help but be wooed by Ayn Rand’s powerful prose and larger-than-life characters.

In the last chapter I read, Francisco d’Anconia, one of the key figures in the novel, gave a speech that could almost have been written in response to one of the comments I received on my last blog post. Since I promised that my next entry would be about Rand, I think it would be appropriate to begin with excerpts from Frisco’s speech and then expound on both the speech and on some of the virtues that I see in Rand.

After hearing a man say, “money is the root of all evil – and [Francisco d’Anconia] the typical product of money,” Frisco responds with a long and cutting speech.

“So you think that money is the root of all evil? Have you ever asked yourself 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. …

When you accept money in payment for your effort, you do so only on the conviction that you will exchange it for the product of the effort of others…Those pieces of paper, which should have been gold, are a token of honor – your claim upon the energy of the men who produce. Your wallet is your statement of hope that somewhere in the world around you there are men who will not default on that moral principle which is the root of money. Is that what you consider evil?

Have you ever looked for the root of production? Take a look at an electric generator and dare tell yourself that it was created by the muscular effort of unthinking brutes…Try to obtain your food by means of nothing but physical motion – and you’ll learn that man’s mind is the root of all the goods produced and of all the wealth that has ever existed.

But you say that money is made by the strong at the expense of the weak? What strength do you mean? It is not the strength of guns or muscle. Wealth is the product of man’s capacity to think. Then is money made by the man who invents a motor at the expense of those who did not invent it? …By the able at the expense of the incompetent? By the ambitious at the expense of the lazy? Money is made – before it can be looted or mooched – made by the effort of every honest man, each to the extent of his ability. An honest man is one who knows that he can’t consume more than he has produced.

To trade by means of money is the code of the men of good will. Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and his effort. Money allows no power to prescribe the value of your effort except the voluntary choice of the man who is willing to trade you his effort in return. Money permits you to obtain for your goods and your labor that which they are worth to the men who buy them, but no more. Money permits no deals except those to mutual benefit by the unforced judgment of the traders. Money demands of you the recognition that men must work for their own benefit, not for their own injury, for their gain, not their loss – the recognition that they are not beasts of burden, born to carry the weight of your misery – that you must offer them values, not wounds – that the common bond among men is not the exchange of suffering, but the exchange of goods. Money demands that you sell, not your weakness to men’s stupidity, but your talent to their reason; it demands that you buy, not the shoddiest they have to offer, but the best product that wins, the best performance, the man of best judgments and highest ability – and the degree of a man’s productiveness is the degree of his reward. This is the code of existence whose tool and symbol is money. Is this what you consider evil?”

I know this is a large excerpt, Rand is verbose and it’s hard to cut her off. This section is undeniably idealistic but it is intended to be. Frisco is describing how our system of monetary exchange should work. How Rand believes it is intended to work. For it function this way, people must be virtuous and share this philosophy.

It is very important to note that he is talking about how money is earned or “made” not how money is accumulated or acquired without hard work. In Rand’s novel, the villains are those characters who wish to have money without working for it, who scheme, loot or by any other ignoble way, acquire wealth. Her heroes are those who make money through hard work, ingenuity, daring and production. Ironically, the former constantly claim to have no interest in material wealth and to be seeking the public good. All the while, their ridiculous scheming and foolish laws constantly put people out of work and are slowly destroying their nation. Alternatively, the latter are bluntly honest about their pursuit to earn money. They in turn work tirelessly creating and in so doing create numerous jobs for the very people that the villains claim to care so much about and try as hard as they can to keep the nation from collapsing (or at least they do until suddenly and inexplicably they disappear). Though her heroes are constantly called villains they also are the most concerned about the numerous small businesses dying and the growing number of people out of work.

I love every part of Frisco’s speech that I quoted. If you argue against it I must admit that I will have no reply, not because it is indefensible but because I find it incomprehensible to think otherwise. Even though his speech is slightly idealistic the beauty of it resonates with me completely.

One of the greatest virtues that I see in Rand is her insistence upon the worth of work. It seems like her readers and critics often overlook this because of her emphasis on money. Frisco’s speech clearly illustrates, at least to me, that she values money because it is a way of acknowledging and appreciating our productivity. What is repulsive or repugnant about believing that we should exchange value for value and that humans should use their capacity to create and produce?

Though it is not illustrated in that excerpt, she also focus on the enjoyment of working. All of her heroes not only value work, but they enjoy it. They do love making money, but they know that they earned it. They do not love it as an end unto itself, but appreciate it as a reward and acknowledgement of their hard work. They refuse to take handouts or to accept unjustified payments. Even when Dagny Taggart, the vice president of a railroad company, has to ask for money to complete a railroad she is able to do it with dignity. While she is humbled by her position, she knows that she will return on the investment given.

Though Rand’s philosophy is not “Christian”, this aspect of her work shouldn’t be despised by Christians. Even in the Garden of Eden man was intended to work. Though the Fall caused work to be harder, it did not erase its value. We are artistic, thinking beings with an amazing capacity to create and produce. Why would we desire not to, other than out of laziness and vice? Why is it that we bemoan working? Why is it implied or argued that work should be a choice? Why do we think that would add and not detract from its value?

Rand clearly disagrees with how we attempt to separate necessity from pleasure, I agree with her. What is virtuous about that division? Why do we think or act like we can only get enjoyment from excess? I don’t think I have ever understood this. The only necessary work that I haven’t enjoyed has been meaningless, asinine busy work or telemarketing (for a few weeks one summer the office I was working for asked me to do sales calls, I thought about quitting every day. I am not a sales woman). Work that is worthy of my time has never been unrewarding: challenging papers, beneficial required reading, productive tasks. I am only unmotivated when I feel I will not get an equal exchange for my effort.

Rand’s emphasis on money may seem repulsive, and her view of men can be incredibly humanistic, but she understands that doing valuable work is more humanizing than handouts. She knows how important it is for people to utilize the abilities they have. It is degrading to assume that anyone does not have the capacity to produce a good that is worthy of trading. This does not mean that people do not need help on occasion, but when they do ask for help and are given it, I agree with her that they should do it as a trader promising to repay. As she states, “an honest man is one who knows that he can’t consume more than he has produced.” Why do we not encourage men to be honest?

We do live in a country where it is hard to find valuable work. The U.S. no longer is a producing society; instead we are a consuming society. No wonder we are not satisfied. We hardly have the option to produce as much as we consume. Though my intention is to get my PhD in Philosophy and to teach at the collegiate level, I doubt if I will always be content with that. Ever since childhood I’ve felt the need to be constantly creating and producing. What we do with our hands should be an expression of what we think. Is that not a Christian axiom?

Addendum:
To clarify, I am not intending to baptize Rand’s thought as Christian. I am aware that she was a devote atheist. At the same time, that doesn’t mean her insights can’t resonate with a Christian worldview. What an author intends and what an author achieves are not always the same. Just because she might not like that some of her thinking resonates with Christian ethos doesn’t change the fact that it does.

6 thoughts on “On Capitalism and Ayn Rand, Part II

  1. your closing paragraph made me a lot less skeptical than i had been previously, so nice job :)

    i think what you're pressing here will surely be an uphill battle, so i look forward to see how you field critiques.

    one simple thought i have is that there seem to be many productive, meaningful, worth-while activities that you can do that will never be worth anything as far as a capitalistic exchange and i wonder how rand/you might leave room for that.

  2. Wow. The quotation certainly was idealistic. Too bad it only applies to one small slice of how capitalism has actually operated. The entrepeneurial sentiments expressed in the quote are better expressed by Marx, who also was concerned about work being creative and accurately valued, and saw capitalism as a big leap forward in this regard. His critique of industrial capitalism, though, is that those who provided the labor were necessarily exploited in this precise area. Their work was not creative or accurately valued. Only the capitalist, who controlled the means of production, actuated the full value of labor. Rand accurately captures the best aspects of the entrepeneurial spirit, but she does not recognize how these spiritual strivings have actually been implemented in teh real world. Have you ever read Marx? He recognizes all the energies of capitalism that Rand does, but also recognizes the inbuilt modes alienation and exploitation that Rand blissfully ignores through her mythological stylings and incomplete philosophy of individuation. I agree with you about work, but I'm not sure how it applies to the history of actual capitalism. Rand thought that socialism killed those energies, and she is right about that in an historical sense, but I don't know if pure capitalism has ever brought about something essentially different. It has always relied on “socialistic” counter-weights to make it liveable.

  3. It seems strange to baptize Rand's thought as Christian in principle when she was boldly anti-religion and atheist in ways that were largely consistent with her views. Her overarching, directing value is individual self-determination while the overarching, directing value of Christian faith is the kingdom of God, a collectivity made up of people from every nation, “civilized” and “savage,” who are joined in the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Ayn Rand jives more with American nationalism than with Christianity, if those two things are separated.

  4. That section of quotes is how I feel about money. Money is community. If there is no community, there is no need for money – one could be entirely self-sufficient and self-reliant.

    Money is based on worth – not the worth of the individual, but the worth of one's works and creativity.

    Love is based on the worth of the individual. Love is not earned, while respect and money are earned.

    This is a bottom up view of money. The economy that exists regardless of government or industrialist.

    Marx and others like him take a top down view of money. They view money as control and the one who controls money controls the population.

    Rand is taking the bottom up view that we each are a part of others. The person who works in the water treatment plant – whom most will never know their names; the farmer; the factory worker; the engineer; etc.

    The true Gross National Product of a country is proportionate to the amount of serving that can occur. The more serving that is possible, the greater the economy.

    I like this person and I think it illustrates that “capitalism” is not necessarily a “Christian” ideal. It is as natural as gravity.

    Dan J

  5. i guess from my economic perspective which is more marxist (or weilian, really, to get a little more obscure, but more accurate) i just don't see much evidence that money is based on the worth of one's works. or at the very least it seams circular to say money is based on the worth of your works, and your works have worth inasmuch as they can make you money.

    it just seems to me that with a market like the one we have now, money and worth are both determined by the people who have enough of the former to determine what amount of the latter will be attributed to the former and so on.

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