distal muse

observations, opinions, ephemera, and views

May 24, 2010

Rand, Civil Rights, Rand

Rand Paul, senate hopeful for Kentucky, made a fool of himself with remarks about the 1964 Civil Rights Act and racism and affirmative action et cetera et cetera so on and so forth.  If Kentucky votes him into office, they get what they deserve.  There was a brief moment when I thought Ron Paul was worthy of some respect—he seemed willing to speak truth to power.  I found that I disagreed with him on specifics, but it is useful (and rare) to have someone doing the Emperor’s New Suit schtick.

However, anyone who names a child after an ideological demagogue has some serious problems with reality.  (To be clear, Rand, under the circumstances, can only refer to Ayn Rand, the patron non-saint of the Libertarian Movement.)*

Rand’s pronouncements about the rights of business owners to deny service to anyone they see fit is perfectly consistent with Randian philosophy and politics.  Basically, it says that the person whose name is on the title owns what the title describes outright and has, by dint of absolute moral dictate, dictatorial command over said property and ought to be allowed to do with it what they wish.  Without explanation to anyone and certainly without anyone else’s permission.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?  I mean, you worked for it, you sweated, earned the means of acquisition, put your name and fortune on the line to own it, worked to make it do what you intended, you should therefore enjoy all rights and privileges in the say of what to do with it.  Your home, your rules.  There’s a feel-good quid pro quo to it that appeals to a basic sense of fairness, suggests a rough equivalence between work and risk and rights.

This is fundamental to Rand’s whole premise, that the creator, the mind behind creation, the one who brings something into existence is the one who has the only natural say in what that thing so created can and will do and who it shall serve.  For an avowed atheist, Rand had a very mythic, godlike attitude toward life.

And I suppose if you could somehow make the case that a single individual did indeed create something from whole cloth and by virtue of his or her singular efforts sustained it and drove it and made it successful, there might be a good and valid point to this view.

But is that ever the case?

Rand’s famous tome, Atlas Shrugged, makes the argument that the movers and shakers, the people who Do, are absolutely vital to the world.  Nothing would exist without them and if they should withdraw their talent and genius and effort, the world would come to a halt.  She makes the case for the Indispensible Man.  And in the novel (for those of you who have not read it), a man named John Galt, fed up with the growing People’s Movements around the world, which he sees as essentially parasitic, calls a strike of the truly important people.  He convinces the men and women who truly matter to leave the world, retire, disappear, and when they have all left, it seems no one can do what they did, and everything falls apart.  The final image shows them emerging from their high-tech hideaway to assume command as the true and rightful aristocracy of ability.

It is, in her narrative, a very small group.

Just for the sake of argument, let me state here that I have seen places where there is indeed a single person whose work and ability are so central to what that business does that if they left that business might very well fail.  I suppose one could draw from that the counter argument that a single individual could build a business from first principles and be the only one who could make it work.

But it doesn’t work that way in reality and this is where the Randians fall short in their formulation.

If it is a business, it cannot possibly come into existence in the kind of vacuum that Rand seems to describe.  It emerges from a community.  It exists because it fulfills a need in the community and it succeeds in direct relation to how well it serves that need and how much the community values its work.

This is not to say the individual is insignificant.  On the contrary, the individual is the one who recognizes, organizes, develops, and then taps into that need.  But once the concept is complete and the seed is planted, nothing further can happen without the community.

What do I mean by that?  In this country, the community has already provided—communications, infrastructure, raw material, financing, licensing, insurance, regulation that allows for growth, legal structure, security, and—most importantly of all—customers.  The individual cannot accomplish all that alone.  The individual takes advantage of all these things provided by the community in order to build the thing he or she has conceived.  Once built and open for business, the only thing the individual can do of an absolutist nature is shut it down.  Because the ongoing operation of that business is now a co-dependent symbiosis, not with individuals, but with the community.

And that is why a business owner doesn’t have the right of judgment to say who shall and who shall not be served—because once the doors are open, that business had joined with the community and become part of it.  If a member of that community comes in to be served, the business owner can only withhold service if that customer violates the greater community standard (no shirt no shoes no service, etc).  And when that action occurs it is not so much the individual expressing an opinion in isolation but the business owner reinforcing community standards that he or she accepted when joining the community as a business.  When you accept all the help provided by the community to enact your concept, you agree to those standards, and cannot arbitrarily dictate who you will or will not serve.

What is so damn difficult to understand?

We have a national heritage of the rugged individual which is based partly on reality but largely on a myth.  That myth is the cowboy, the mountain man, the single-minded industrialist.  The independent farmer.

The cowboy was a wage earner.  The cattleman for whom he worked depended on the markets and the price structure Back In The World to exist, and the money he derived from that interface is all that kept him “independent.”  The mountain men were in many instances businessmen who spent their off time in cities, spending what they’d earned.  The single-minded industrialist depended on the financial landscape provided by the community to become an industrialist.  The independent farmer was only ever independent insofar as he was not dependent on urban markets.

The other, less pleasant icons, like the gunslingers, were either maladjusted or parasites.   The settlers, who often get a bad rap in old westerns, came west and one of the first things they did was start a community, because they knew they couldn’t survive alone.

We have lionized these icons.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with that until we try to hold them up as counterexamples to the very systems that they themselves were part of.  Then we run into problems.

Even as a teenager, breathlessly reading the 1000-page-plus epic of Atlas Shrugged, I thought there was something wrong with Rand’s premise—that somehow, all these supposedly indispensable people really were so unique as to constitute a separate species.  No one could take their place?  The only other people on the planet were social parasites and the hapless incompetents like poor Eddie Willers?  That was not my experience.

So while many may feel a tang of sympathy for the idea expressed by Rand Paul, that the private business owner should be free from the dictates of the community, it’s an idea based on an erroneous notion of how such things exist.  Business is not free from the community—it can’t be—it only exists because of the community.

And if that person standing there waiting to be served has different skin color, too bad—he or she is a part of the community that has granted you the ability to have a business for them to stand it.  You can’t throw them out without, by extension, throwing the whole community out.

But this is civil liberties 101.  Why should any of this have to be explained to someone who thinks he has the ability to serve in the Senate?

*Since writing this, I have learned that I am in error in assuming Rand is named for Ayn Rand.  His proper name is Randall.  Rather than doing the cowardly thing and simply changing what I wrote, though, I decided to leave it stand and add this little mea culpa.  Nevertheless, given the sentiments he expresses, I think the article as a whole is the best way to express my feelings.

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