(Note: We hereby introduce Chuck Brown - a former business manager, a former city council member for the southern Minnesota town of Olivia, and a novelist – as a guest blogger for Growth & Justice.)
Conservative columnist Jason Lewis’ professed love for Ayn Rand and her novel, Atlas Shrugged, (Star Tribune, Apr. 17) struck a chord with me, but probably not one he intended.
Rand has long been deified by those who use the worship of individualism and capitalism (see this NY Times summary of her influence on right-wing business leaders) to deny the notion of common good and the enormous value of that which we do collectively, i.e. through our good governments. But Lewis, like Rand, goes even further to suggest that anything done collectively or altruistically results in a loss of freedom. In Lewis’ world “productive thinkers” are to be valued to the extent that we dare not ask any sacrifice of them or seek to limit the windfalls from their achievements. “Productive thinkers” sounds a bit like today’s sainted “job creators” who, we are told, will take their bat and go home, or somewhere else, if the game isn’t played exactly by their rules.
I’m not against productive thought any more than I’m against job creation, though it occurs to me that we can also have productive thoughts and create jobs when we work together, Rand and Lewis notwithstanding. But my chief aim here is to dispute the notion that all collective acts result in a loss of freedom. I’ll begin with some very basic and personal observations.
The first thing I do when I get up in the morning is turn on the lights. The second thing I do…well, I won’t go into detail on the second thing, other than to say that it concludes with a flush. The third thing I do is turn on the water and brush my teeth. Now my point here is that the first three things I do each day involve a good or service that I purchase from government. Most folks may not buy electricity from a municipal utility, as I do, but many of us in rural Minnesota do, and our basic power supply throughout this nation is properly regulated by public agencies. And most of us now are hooked up to clean and efficient "government-run'' water and sewer systems. These are things we have chosen to do collectively, not because we are knee-jerk collectivists, but because it simply made the most sense. It was the best way to get that particular job done in a way that produced value for the largest number of people. Ayn Rand may have found digging her own well and having a two-holer in the backyard to be more to her philosophical liking, but I can’t see how she could claim that I’ve lost freedom by enjoying public works. I might even argue that the convenience of these systems adds freedom, granting me time for things I want to do rather than, say, dig my own two-holer.
Public safety and common good requires that we obey the law and pay taxes, but only criminals risk serious loss of freedom in our democracy. The rest of us enjoy the freedom of an orderly society ensured in large part by taxes and governments and public works. National defense, one of our largest collective "government-run'' endeavors, has as its primary focus the defense of our freedom. Then of course there’s public education, which accounts for about half our state-local tax dollars, and it’s hard to imagine how we might be freer without it. In fact, the sages tell us, education sets us free.
We Americans are exceptionally individualistic, and so Ayn Rand and rugged pioneers and cowboys will always be part of our thinking. But many of our greatest national achievements have been collective efforts, and that’s not likely to change, even in the land of the free.