I am continually amazed that thinking adults are attracted to the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and I shudder to think how influential this philosophy has been among the prominent and powerful in this country since the Reagan Administration. Alan Greenspan was one of the first high public officers to sing the praises of Ayn Rand, and now we have a veritable choral homage consisting of voices like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and others. Both explicitly and implicitly, Objectivist free market libertarianism is one of the strong animating forces for a large swath of the Tea Party movement. Rand called her philosophy “Objectivism,” by which she basically meant eschewing anything not immediately apparent and visible–anything not “objective.” But more than that, it is a philosophy that promotes naked self-interest and “free market exchange” to the level of virtue, perhaps even the highest good of all.
There are any number of directions from which Rand’s Objectivism can be criticized. As just one example, we can look at it through eyes informed by the work of Laurence Kohlberg on moral development (as well as a number of other researchers in that field of study.) From this perspective we see that as a social philosophy, Rand’s Objectivism (and free market libertarianism in general) is stuck in an adolescent stage of moral development (Kohlberg’s Level 1, Stage 2). This moral stage of development, based on an orientation of self-interest, is quite appropriate for teenagers, but not for adults. We expect adults to mature beyond an adolescent stage of moral development, coming to see the wisdom in having people curtail their adolescent sense of “freedom” in favor of the good of society as a whole, recognizing their connections to all other members of society, and investing their energies in the good of future generations. Objectivist free market libertarianism is directly destructive of the delicate social fabric, which consists mainly of our shared sense of shared connection.
We can surely tolerate those adults who never do mature beyond an adolescent sense of social morality. It’s a free country, after all. But why in God’s name would we envision a “good society” as one in which teenagers or people of teenage moral philosophy are in control? This is exactly why other people of the world speak of the USA as very “immature” in their thinking, as teenagers armed with big weapons.
As mentioned above, Kohlberg ranked this type of moral thinking as the second stage of level one morality – that is, step 2 out of a possible 6, with levels 3 and 4 representing conventional citizen level of moral thinking. That is, steps 3 and 4 represent the minimum levels most adults in the society need to reach just in order for the society of have a stable future. Step 2 is below that threshold. To the extent that Kohlberg is correct, we have to say that the rise of Rand’s Objectivist free-market libertarianism as a pervasive guiding social philosophy since the Reagan years represents clear moral BACKSLIDING, moving backwards not forwards, in terms of our society’s social morality, and does not bode well for our future.