Atlas Shrugged: Corporate Philanthropy

Atlas Shrugged, p.46-47

I‘ve got one more point to make about Hank Rearden, and then we’ll move on to the next scene. Hank’s brother, Philip, asks him to donate money to a charity he’s working for, an group called “Friends of Global Progress”:

Rearden had never been able to keep track of the many organizations to which Philip belonged, nor to get a clear idea of their activities. He had heard Philip talking vaguely about this one for the last six months. It seemed to be devoted to some sort of free lectures on psychology, folk music and co-operative farming. Rearden felt contempt for groups of that kind and saw no reason for a closer inquiry into their nature. [p.46]

Yeah! Take that, you dirty hippies!

Rand is playing a double game here: she describes Philip’s charity to make it seem as worthless and ineffective as possible, so that Hank’s disgust with it seems to be justified. But in reality, it wouldn’t matter what that charity did, because she still wouldn’t advocate supporting it. When she refers to “groups of that kind” that her heroes hold in contempt, she’s not just referring to bad charities; she’s referring to all charities.

The black-or-white Objectivist ideology requires this. In Rand’s eyes, there are only two kinds of people: the heroic self-reliant capitalists, who don’t need charity, and the lazy worthless moochers, who don’t deserve it. Therefore, there’s no reason to help anyone. All you should care about is yourself, and everyone else should get along as best they can on their own. If they starve or become homeless or die of illness they can’t afford to treat, too bad for them. (As I’ve written before, Rand’s entire explanation of what would happen to the poor and the needy in an Objectivist society is: “If you want to help them, you will not be stopped.”)

To further showcase her view of charity, Rand writes a scene where Hank decides, just this once, to make his brother happy and agrees to give him ten thousand dollars:

Philip stared at him blankly; it was neither shock nor pleasure; it was just the empty stare of eyes that looked glassy.
“Oh,” said Philip, then added, “We’ll appreciate it very much.” There was no emotion in his voice, not even the simple one of greed. [p.47]

This bizarre wording seems to be implying that, if only Philip had been acting out of personal greed, his motivations would be understandable and acceptable. But the idea of collecting money with the goal of helping others, even if you don’t get any direct benefit from doing so, strikes Rand as an incomprehensible horror. And she goes on to confirm that this is exactly what she meant:

“You don’t really care about helping the underprivileged, do you?” Philip asked – and Rearden heard, unable to believe it, that the tone of his voice was reproachful.
“No, Phil, I don’t care about it at all. I only wanted you to be happy.”
“But that money is not for me. I am not collecting it for any personal motive. I have no selfish interest in the matter whatever.”
…Rearden turned away. He felt a sudden loathing: not because the words were hypocrisy, but because they were true; Philip meant them. [p.47]

Note: loathing. Rearden feels only indifference for his wife and family, but he actively detests the idea of selflessly helping others.

Again, this is an outgrowth of Rand’s black-and-white, almost Manichaean worldview. Not only do her heroes not need charity, they recoil from the idea and would never accept it under any circumstances. Therefore, it follows that the only people who would accept charity are the bad guys, the evil moochers who are glad to sponge off the hard work of others.

In fact, it’s the major theme of this novel that the only real flaw of Rand’s superhuman protagonists is that they’re willing to continue to work and to produce under an unjust system, expending their energy to support the worthless leeches whose continued existence that system makes possible. (They learn to stop doing this over the course of the novel.) This is just another way of saying that the only flaw of her ruthless millionaire business executives is that they’re too nice.

All this would make at least some sense if the world was a perfect meritocracy, where everyone’s level of success in life – how much wealth they own and how high they rise – was directly and completely traceable to their individual effort and talent. This is an assumption so gigantic that Rand never even seems to realize she’s making it. It’s also an assumption that, just as obviously, is completely false.

The world isn’t a perfect meritocracy, far from it: when and where people are born, and under what circumstances, matters a lot. If I’m born in an impoverished slum in a developing country, my chances of success are far less than if I’m born to wealthy parents in the U.S., no matter what kind of talent or potential I possess. Even in the wealthy capitalist U.S., race and class make a tremendous difference in one’s level of social mobility.

It’s facts like this that motivate the Giving Pledge, where multibillionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have promised to donate the majority of their fortunes to charitable causes. Doubtless, this idea would have induced head-exploding levels of cognitive dissonance in Dagny Taggart or Hank Rearden – but that just shows that there’s more to the world than is contained in Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

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