With the possible election in November of Mitt Romney as America's first “businessman-president” since Herbert Hoover in 1928, we're forced to ask a philosophical question that comes around regularly on the guitar: Beyond its imperative to make profits, does business have any moral responsibility to society?
Republicans, our traditional zealots for unregulated capitalism, usually inject into this discussion the 18th century economist, Adam Smith, who depicted every good merchant's fierce pursuit of profit as an “invisible hand” that naturally redounds to society's benefit. To quote Smith: “By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”
If this were all Smith had written in his masterwork, The Wealth of Nations (which most Republicans have never read — but I have!), he'd remain the ideological linchpin for the conservative movement's current breed of social Darwinism. The trouble is that Smith also favored the sort of “compassion” that tends to creep-out winner-take-all capitalists like Romney. Smith, for example, not only advocated the minimum wage; he was the first to suggest a “living wage” that might lift all laborers to genuine prosperity.
Smith thought wealth earned by labor was virtuous, but he frowned on guys (like Romney) who make millions by dabbling and gambling in financial markets. He believed that great wealth concentrated in private property or in big banks was a menace to society, and he was a pioneering fan of progressive taxation. “It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion,” Smith said.
Talk like this positions Smith way left of Romney — which is why his running-mate choice, Paul Ryan, was a brilliant stroke. It not only brought youth and the Tea Party into Romney's camp, it interjected an economic philosopher more appropriate to current conservatism.
Enter Ayn Rand, stage far right (holding Paul Ryan's hand).
For 25 years (until a politically driven recantation in April), Ryan was a slavish Rand disciple, quoting her, handing out her books, and declaring that America was locked in battle between “individualism [yay!] and collectivism [boo!].”
Rand — who died before Ryan could seek her out and actually genuflect in her presence — was a Russian atheist whose “heroic” vision owed debts to, among other megalomaniac wet dreams, the Norse gods and Valkyries, Ivan the Terrible, and Friedrich Nietzsche. This sort of testosterone intellectualism has long rendered Rand deeply seductive to sheltered, wealthy, snow-white reactionaries on backwater campuses like Miami of Ohio (Ryan's alma mater).
While Smith counseled empathy — even fairness — for the working poor, Ayn Rand's capitalism is pure, crystalline, merciless. She regarded ordinary people as a vast cesspool. She would spare the poor and jobless from an industrial-scale system of extermination only because they were, simply, unworthy of notice. Quote Rand: “One can't love man without hating most of the creatures who pretend to bear his name.”
Adam Smith, by contrast, was a sissy. He said: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”
Perhaps the big difference between Smith and Rand is that Smith grounded his ideas in reality. Rand, a Hollywood screenwriter, fashioned fictional worlds, built on a Cecil B. DeMille scale, manned by solitary, misunderstood giants who waged lonesome battle against armies of jealous drones, vengeful dwarfs, and parasites. In Rand's five-pound pulp novels, she spun grand fables, erected ivory pulpits, and unspooled epic paeans to the divinity of Self (while, back in Janesville, one deeply gullible teenage boy, looking around at the unwashed shrubs in study hall, wept silent tears of inspiration).
Rand's world in The Fountainhead featured hero-architect Howard Roark, inventor of modernism. He is rejected by a hidebound Establishment that perpetuates — by violence, if necessary — the endless imitation of a neo-classical past. We know this is a cool fictional premise because, by time of The Fountainhead 's release in 1943, a real-life architect named Frank Lloyd Wright (after his early battles against tradition) had been designing modernist buildings for an eager Establishment for some 50 years. Rand's heroic iconoclast was an outdated outcast in a tendentious dystopia.
Like Howard Roark, both Romney and Ryan seem the brainchildren of a pop philosopher whose magically simple measure of human superiority is rooted in a sort of divine materialism. In Romney's and Ryan's Randworld, virtue and wealth are two sides of the same shiny Krugerrand.
There's just one hitch. Rand, who was actually alive during the Hoover regime, offers no guidance on the question of whether business guys, as Mitt asserts, make better presidents. Rand found democracy — the scum of the earth electing their leaders — disgusting. She didn't vote; nor did she care whether the president was a businessman or a porn star. Nor would she have deigned to admit into her salon the corporate lobbyists and casino billionaires who are bankrolling campaigns.
Adam Smith, on the other hand, had a position: “The government of an exclusive company of merchants is, perhaps, the worst of all governments for any country whatever.”