Many of us sense that there is something very wrong with the policy ideas the GOP has been pursuing. To understand this, we need to look at the explicit philosophy that has been motivating activists on the American right since the 1980s. In this brief essay, I seek to explain the source and origin of the deep philosophic confusion in the GOP today.
There are two strands to the ideology held by many activists on the right today. One strand comes from Ayn Rand, who wrote in the 1950s and 60s, preaching that capitalism is not merely a neutral system that allows individuals to pursue their economic self-interest. Rand emigrated from Russia after the Communist takeover. She developed a political philosophy whose core idea can be summarized as follows: Any public policy involving taxing and spending whose GOAL is to make the life of citizens economically less arduous is morally illegitimate. Rand held that those who ‘earn’ money have a right to all of it, and that taxation for anything other than defense and contract enforcement is morally illegitimate. Importantly, Rand argued that moral ideas matter and that activists should treat capitalism as a moral ideal. This inspired me in my 20s and Rand was my inspiration to get a PHD in philosophy. (I left this phase at around the age of 28. Some stay in their “Rand phase” their entire lives, including Paul Ryan and many other leaders in the GOP today.)
The second strand of the ideology controlling the GOP today comes from two others whose ideas are similar to Rand. They are Ludwig von Mises and Frederich von Hayek. Both argued that any government involvement in the economy would lead to totalitarianism. This branch has inspired the Koch Brothers in particular, and since the 1980s they have spent billions promoting the notion that capitalism is a deep moral value system. Like Rand, the latter two also argued that economic egoism, or mere self-interest, was an ETHICLALLY GOOD value to organize society by. Each of these thinkers came from Eastern Europe around the time of WWII.
In summary, the radical nature of these claims is NOT in the idea that self-interest influences human beings. This after all is the assumption of the American political-economic system. The radicalness and badness of their idea resides at what I call the “second level” of judgment. What do I mean by this distinction? In short, first level claims make specific assertions about what motivates the human being. Second order claims make assertions concerning whether or not a first order claim SHOULD or SHOULD NOT motivate the individual. What is contrary to our tradition is that these thinkers are making the second order claim that Economic Selfishness is a GOOD thing and SHOULD BE the basis of policy. They believe deeply that it is good and necessary to support those citizens who know how to earn a lot of money and to treat everyone else as “second handers” (Rand’s term). (Think of Mitt Romney’s remark about the 47% four years ago.) In the next sections, I explain what is wrong with Randian and Libertarian thought and what philosophical corrections are required.
Why these schools of thought are wrong and what we must understand to begin to rid the nation of the scourge of ideology:
Although the philosophical issues involved with Randianism and Libertarianism are complex, it is possible to understand the flaws in this thinking without reading long texts on political economy. I explain the problem in the next few paragraphs, making use of a model of explaining the American system that I have been developing for two decades. In the following posts, I will explain the issue as a set of 10 points, to separate the main ideas into smaller concepts.