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just another parasite

January 31, 2011

I think Ayn Rand’s use of Social Security and Medicare may very well prove by example that her conception of capitalistic self-interest is ultimately self-refuting. And by ‘capitalistic self-interest’ I mean the idealization in her moral philosophy of greed (self-interest) over altruism (common good), competition over cooperation, privatization over public ownership, etc. In other words, it seems to me that it was in her best self-interest to take advantage of the very altruistic ideals and services she decried as a “basic evil.”

Of course, one may counter that she already paid into the system, so she was entitled to receive those benefits and it was in her best interest to do so, meaning she wasn’t a hypocrite and was still being true to her Objectivist philosophy despite receiving benefits. That may be true; however, I think it shows a weakness in her philosophy because (1) one can argue that most recipients of Social Security and Medicare pay into the system and are entitled to receive those benefits, and (2) even if she hadn’t paid into the system via taxes, she probably still didn’t make enough money as a writer to pay for her own surgery and other medical bills without risking financial ruin and there’s no guarantee she would’ve invested the additional income in such as way as to support all her medical and living expenses.

The first weakness I see here is that she was vehemently opposed the system itself, which she viewed as morally wrong, and essentially called the people who use it “parasites,” looters” and moochers.” Part of this is based on the assumption that the money is taken from the heroic producers and given to lazy dead-beats who should’ve simply worked harder and saved for things like cancer surgery themselves. But, instead of doing that herself, she applied for and received benefits under the justification that, like most people who receive them, she’d already paid into the system and was therefore entitled to these benefits.

To me, this undermines the idea that the majority of people who use and otherwise perpetuate the system are “parasites,” looters” and moochers” because they too have paid into the system, with payments based on lifetime earnings (which, of course, are taxed). If she isn’t a parasite for using the system, then most of the people who use it aren’t either. This includes people like my mother, who worked hard her whole life until she ended up getting sick and became unable to work.

The second weakness has to do with her illness itself. Rand was big on personal responsibility and the idea that we’re responsible for making good decisions, along with reaping the fruits of our own labour. However, Rand herself basically ignored all the evidence that smoking was harmful, and eventually developed lung cancer. It seems to me that, according to her own philosophy, she should’ve taken responsibility for her smoking and paid for her own medical needs from the money she earned and saved from her writing career. Instead, she signed up for Social Security because she felt entitled to it. By that reasoning, everyone who pays into Social Security is entitled to it, including people who get sick from their own risky behaviour.

This, I think, undermines much of her moral philosophy when it comes to its stress on individualism and personal responsibility. If a successful writer has trouble paying her medical bills and needs help, why shouldn’t everyone else who’s worked hard but is still unable to afford all the care they need get it? What’s so morally wrong with a system that attempts to provide such a safety net? Is a system of taxation and redistribution really more morally reprehensible than a system which lets the sick, poor and elderly die due to lack of means? Charity only goes so far.

I don’t have an issue with people who are critical of the government’s management of the system (it can definitely be improved), or even those who take the position that taxes are stealing (for those who don’t wish to pay them, I suppose they are; although, I don’t see how a complex, modern civil society can function without taxes, especially considering how interconnected everything is, and most people I know pay them willing). But I do have an issue with a moral philosophy that more or less blames the victim for being a victim.

Despite all her rhetoric, when push came to shove, she needed the state’s help via the very same system of taxation and redistribution she decried as a basic evil, and was as much of a “parasite,” “looter” and “moocher” as she accused other users of the system to be. Why? Because, ironically enough, it was in her best self-interest; the so-called “welfare state” that she spent her literary career attacking saved her life and allowed her to live another eight years railing against it. Instead of the productive hero, she became just another “parasite,” only one intent on killing the host.

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One Comment
  1. Another weakness I see, albeit unrelated to her use of Social Security, is that the basis of her individualism is the rejection of groups as valid categories of reference. This is little more than sophistry, in my opinion. It's like saying there's no city, state, country, etc., only individual citizens; no family, only individual family members; no human being, only individual cells; etc. From an Objectivist point of view, the state derives its power from individuals, which means that, paradoxically, there is no state (group), only independent individuals. But all you have to do is look around and see that the individual is anything but independent in a civil society; they depend on a number of factors for their survival, and I'd argue that one of those factors is the cooperation and mutual well-being of other individuals in that society.

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