Understanding Ayn Rand - An Evil That Cannot be Tolerated
This is the 4th of a 6-part series designed to explain several important aspects of Ayn Rand’s influential Atlas Shrugged, or at least correct widespread misconceptions regarding Atlas Shrugged that disastrously influence modern culture. You can pick up the start of this series here.
In the previous post we introduced John Galt’s nationwide radio speech, the fifty-six-page summary of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism set toward the end of Atlas Shrugged. Our focus in that post was to point to the virtue of honesty, which Galt describes as part of his moral code and “the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice …” Our focus here is on an absolute rule Galt describes as part of his moral code.
Neither in her illustration of Objectivism in action through the construct of Galt’s Gulch nor in her teaching and defense of Objectivism through the voice of John Galt does Rand set out many absolute rules. As with values and virtues, reasonable minds may differ over the rules by which to frame a code of morality. Again, we find places to differ with Galt but prefer to point to important common ground around mutuality.
For example, Galt’s rule against the use of physical force against others. Galt emphatically argues that no matter what else might be open to disagreement, the use or even threat of force to make a person act against his or her will is an act of evil that cannot be tolerated. In fact, Galt argues, to force a person to act against his or her will—to not do what is in his or her best interest—is to negate and paralyze his or her means of survival. To do so destroys that person’s capacity to live.
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Galt illustrates this evil with the visual of a pointed gun forcing a person to act against his or her will. To strip a person of free will through force is to coerce them to surrender their life. This “your mind or your life” coercion is antithetical to his code of morality—and it is antithetical to mutually beneficial partnership. Galt gives the additional example of the “politician who confronts a country with the ultimatum: ‘Your children’s education or your life’” as an example of a “your mind or your life” coercion. Indeed, Galt affirms, “Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins.”
As the human experience has long and painfully taught, coercive force as effective as a gun can take any form. Let’s illustrate with two familiar examples consistent with Galt’s “your mind or your life” coercion.
The southern American (and elsewhere) slavery system reduced humans from Africa to chattel and forced them to physical labor. While these humans were coerced to work with physical force, the underlying reason was economic: it was cheaper to make slaves of people and force them to work than to hire and pay them a living wage. An important recognition here is that the force was economic and the means was physical.
In modern capitalism (in America and elsewhere) we find a glaring parallel. Take for example a laborer at a nationwide retailer whose executives have chosen to limit wages of its laborer class of employees to under $10 an hour. It is beyond reasonable debate that $10 an hour is not a full-time living and sustainable wage in the United States for the average working adult. With no alternatives, because the executives at many nationwide retailers have collectively made similar decisions, the adult laborer is forced to accept and work against his or her will for a wage that not only negates and paralyzes his or her means of survival, but destroys that person’s capacity to live. An important recognition here is that both the force and means are economic.
People are often enticed into meaningless debates about current minimum hourly wages. Whether arguing against any minimum wage standards, defending the current U.S. federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr., or pushing for nickel and dime increases trying to reach a minimum hourly wage of $15/hr., such debates are meaningless because in order to live a middle-class life in the U.S. (circa September 2022) a single person working full-time needs to earn about $27.77/hr. Following the philosophy and logic of Ayn Rand through her alter ego John Galt, those who are capable and wish to work and live at least a middle-class life in the U.S. but can’t, because their employer denies them middle-class wages (or hours or both), are workers forced to act against his or her will.
As Rand and her followers should logically agree, whatever shape the gun takes—physical in the form of a gun-bearing taskmaster or economic in the form of a collectively suppressive lack of options—to force a person to choose against his or her will in exchange for his or her life is an evil that cannot be tolerated. The opposite of this evil of coercion—the corrective remedy and cure to this and similar evils—is the mutually beneficial alignment and partnership that Galt speaks to in our earlier post, which springs from the virtue of honesty. We further explore that alignment and partnership in the next post. Join us there!
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