Do you think that Ayn Rand/Objectivism is elitist?
Consider this passage from In Defense of Elitism, by William A. Henry III:
We have foolishly embraced the unexamined notions that everyone is pretty much alike (and worse, should be), that self-fulfillment is more important that objective achievement [this bit I take issue with, as the two are mutually inclusive], that the common man is always right, that a good and just society should be far more concerned succoring its losers than with honoring and encouraging its winners to achieve more and thereby benefit everyone. … The list of what people are said to be “entitled” to has exploded exponentially as we have redefined our economy, in defiance of everyday reality, as a collective possession—a myth of communal splendor rather than simultaneous individual achievements.
In pursuit of egalitarianism, an ideal wrenched far beyond what the founding fathers took it to mean, we have willfully blinded ourselves to the home truths those solons well understood, not least the simple fact that some people are better than others—smarter, harder working, more learned, more productive, harder to replace. Some ideas are better than others, some values more enduring, some works of art more universal. Some cultures, though we dare not say it, are more accomplished than others ad therefore more worthy of study. Every corner of the human race may have something to contribute. That does not mean all contributions are equal.
Henry is openly a liberal Democrat, and it shows in his writing, but he raises some good points about the nature of equality. Moral and legal equality, which all persons are and should have from birth, do not carry over into the economic, social, and intellectual realms.
Holding those thoughts in mind, let’s look at a passage from Atlas Shrugged:
In proportion to the mental energy he spent, the man who creates a new invention receives but a small percentage of his value in terms of material payment, no matter what fortune he makes, no matter what millions he earns. But the man who works as a janitor in the factory producing that invention, receives an enormous payment in proportion to the mental effort that his job requires of him. And the same is true of all men between, on all levels of ambition and ability. The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains. Such is the nature of the “competition” between the strong and the weak of the intellect. Such is the pattern of “exploitation” for which you have damned the strong.
I’ve emphasized a section of this passage, which summarized what is known as the Pyramid of Ability. I recommend everyone read the linked article, but here’s the critical excerpt:
[I]t is important to realize that one’s place on the pyramid of ability does not represent one’s basic moral worth. The pyramid reflects one’s social worth and one’s social position. One’s moral worth is not unrelated, but it isn’t equivalent.
Ayn Rand’s characters are so focused on producing wealth (and are so good at it) that a great many readers mistakenly think being good at producing wealth—or worse, simply possessing a large quantity—are Objectivist virtues. Yet that flies in the face of the cardinal Objectivist virtue, rationality, because obviously individuals differ in their skillsets and overall ability to produce wealth. It also contradicts egoism, because the monetary value of certain skills is determined by their value to other people.
One’s moral value is determined—in part—by the degree to which they use their potential. In the economic sphere of action, this refers to maximizing the amount of value created, usually measured in monetary terms. (I should not have to explain this, but many individuals choose to focus their energies in other spheres. Ideally, this will also bring monetary gains, but our world is not an ideal case.)
There are undisputedly individuals who are better than others. Objectivism accepts that this will be true in any sphere involving skill, but all persons are capable of being equal. This clearly is not true, however, the Objectivist philosophy is an admirable attempt at guiding people down the right path.
Lastly, I’d like to consider Ayn Rand herself. On this matter, I’d like to refer to what Ludwig von Mises said to her after the publication of Atlas Shrugged:
You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you. If this be arrogance, as some of your critics observed, it is still the truth that had to said in the age of the Welfare State.
Both Ayn Rand and her philosophy accept that individuals are not equal, but not necessarily so. In the material and intellectual realms, inequality is inevitable (and, I think, desirable), but the moral sphere individuals come into this world the same, and differential themselves only by conscious action. Thus, Objectivism can be thought of as morally egalitarian, and elitist in most other areas.