Just about any philosopher or religious leader, not to mention nearly anyone you meet walking down the street, could tell you that selfishness is not a virtue. If you are old enough to apply for a driver’s license, you can probably work out that selfish behavior has detrimental effects on all of us. Even if you’re not quite ready to give it up.
But not Ayn Rand. The 20th-century doyenne of destructive capitalism, dear to self-centered college sophomores and those, like Paul Ryan, who have not yet grown out of their me-first phase, declared aloud what a lot of jerks tend to keep to themselves: the idea that selfishness is awesome. Rand even wrote a book on the theme, The Virtue of Selfishness.
In Rand’s vision of individualism gone wild, total selfishness is transformed from a vice into the highest aim of human existence. The male heroes of her novels, when they aren’t having coercive sex with women (He moved one hand, took her two wrists and pinned them behind her, under his arm, wrenching her shoulder blades)are busy spouting their enthusiasm for selfishness, like Howard Roark, the architect in Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. “The first right on earth is the right of the ego,” declares Roark. “Man’s first duty is to himself.”
From Rand’s warped perspective, self-sacrifice is demeaning and altruism is barbaric and corrupting. Any denial of the self is pure wickedness. To live only for yourself and do just want you want, whenever you want to do it, is the greatest good.
Rand’s self-centered philosophy, which she named, rather oxymoronically, “ethical egoism” is an example of capitalist apologia born in the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, which Rand witnessed in her native Russia. Rand was so obsessed with the concept of the self as its own highest end that she saw it demonstrated everywhere, even identifying selfishness as the fundamental principle of the founding of the United States: “This country was not based on selfless service, sacrifice, renunciation or any precept of altruism,” insisted Rand. “It was based on a man’s right to the pursuit of happiness. His own happiness. Not anyone else’s. A private, personal, selfish motive….”
Never in a thousand years could someone as myopic as Rand have seen that for many people, happiness is actually found in furthering the happiness of others. This is heresy for Randians. To hear Rand tell it, you must never be the object for anyone. You must be solely your own object. You don’t do things for anybody else: it’s all for you. The failure to adopt this mentality destroys productive effort and ruins the brain, according to Rand.
Of course, the reason that the heart of the sophomore thrills to the sound of this self-centered philosophy is that many, if not most, young people have a natural inclination to pursue only their own whims at any given moment. Then they typically grow up and begin to recognize the interconnectedness of the world and the pleasure of giving to others rather than constantly receiving. But the temptation to continue on in the infantile way is strong, and American popular culture, along with its more noxious political figures, sends out a constant siren song of selfishness: It’s okay to be a jerk! Life is short, go for it! Screw everyone else!
Rand imbues the heroes of her novels with various virtuous qualities to prevent them from appearing monstrous. They have a love of making things, particularly tall buildings that flatter their egos but also presumably can be useful to people needing, say, an office. But what if the person embracing her philosophy lacks any industriousness or talent? And even if they did possess those attributes, what if they decided that making something useful to other people merely diluted the pleasure of acting solely for themselves? Why would they bother with productive effort if they could satisfy the mindless whims of the moment without creating anything of value whatsoever?
In short, what does pure self-interest really look like?
It looks an awful lot like Kim Kardashian. Or Paris Hilton. Or other recent manifestations of America’s celebrity culture in which performing an actual useful activity or producing something — anything — of value to society is wholly unnecessary to pleasures and rewards of endless self-branding, self-marketing, and sharing pictures of yourself on Instagram.
For Ayn Rand, Kim Kardashian must be heroic, because she does nothing for anyone but herself. It pleases her to buy gold-plated toilets and burn through a million dollars a month —including $30,000 per week on clothing — while selling her name and image to any marketer that comes a-calling. It does not please her to study anything, make anything, do or say anything of any use to anyone else whatsoever. The title of her forthcoming book, composed of hundreds of giddily snapped selfies, would no doubt send Rand into shivers of ecstasy if she were around to see it: Selfish.
Sayeth Rand: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life” (Atlas Shrugged). From this perspective, the Kardashians and the Hiltons are moral exemplars. The model of these powerful, high-profile celebrities is to turn to their backs completely on any social responsibility or social use of any kind. The self becomes wholly its own end, the alpha and omega of existence. And you can sell this vision of indulgent, infantile self obsession for lots of money!
Back in the 1820s, Alexis de Tocqueville raised a warning that extreme individualism in America, if not constrained, could ruin “the virtues of public life.” But politicians today trip over themselves to appeal to the selfishness of voters, some of them, like Paul Ryan, handing out copies of Ayn Rand’s books to their staffers while they do it. Why should your tax dollars help anyone else? Why should you care if somebody else is suffering?In 2005, Ryan told the Atlas Society that Rand “taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are.” That statement teaches us quite a bit about what America is becoming and what values systems it is reflecting and promoting.
Rand has impacted not only America’s politics, but Silicon Valley, where entrepreneurs wax poetic about Rand’s heroic individuals. Her books are selling like hotcakes, and Hollywood has hailed her: the final film of the Rand trilogy created for the silver screen, Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who Is John Galt? just opened and proves her continued influence in America.
Selfish behavior may feel good, at least in the short-term, to those who indulge in it. But it’s destructive for everybody else, and does not prepare us either for the realities of life, or its deeper rewards. America’s celebrity culture, which has now coughed up, in the form of Kardashian, the purest expression of utter uselessness and narcissism, is a red flag that de Tocqueville’s fears are coming to fruition.
What we will get with the continued acceptance, and even reification, of narcissism is not more prosperity, more inventions, more opportunity, or more quality of life. What we will get are more Kim Kardashians.
Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of “Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.” She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet’s New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.