“What are your masses but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it? What is the people but millions of puny, shriveled, helpless souls that have no thoughts of their own, who eat and sleep and chew helplessly the words others put into their mildewed brains?” -Ayn Rand from “We the Living”
I have never been a big fan of Ms. Rand. Most likely this antipathy stems from the time I spent in Vacation Bible School during summer vacations. At the age of six, I was baptized at Holland Avenue Baptist Church in West Columbia, South Carolina. That would have been around 1955. My mother was one of the founding members before it moved into its present impressive structure. I will never forget going to that little rented storefront church. It was only a few hundred feet from Ed’s Drive Thru which sold the world’s finest foot long hot dogs with chili. Ed’s is long gone but will always live in my heart. I haven’t tasted a chili dog since that would hold a candle to Ed’s foot-long. If I am fortunate enough to migrate to heaven when I shake this mortal coil I can only hope that my first image will be an angel handing out footlong chili dogs from Ed’s with the promise of more to come.
I will never forget my baptism ceremony…me in my little white suit and the preacher pinching my nose and dunking me. I vividly remember walking around after the ceremony, sopping wet but feeling good. In the cacophony that Vacation Bible School frequently devolved into, we spent none of those precious childhood moments debating Objectivism or rational self-interest. Most of the boys in my group were too busy making Bible forts out of popsicle sticks to delve into Ms. Rand’s hatred for Kant (among others), or examining her own alternate religion, laissez-faire capitalism. For those of you who don’t know what this is, I offer up a condensed version: It means no government interference in the markets, i.e. no regulation. Long before Ayn Rand came on the scene Theodore Roosevelt saw this concept as severely flawed and proceeded to take action to protect the public from the practitioners of laissez-faire.
For those who want to remove all regulation from the marketplace, I have two words: Lead and Thalidomide. Most everyone knows the dangers of lead-based paint but many of you may be too young to remember either the tragedy surrounding the drug Thalidomide in the early 1960′s or the media frenzy that ensued. One of the unfortunate side effects was Phocomelia. When women took this drug in the early stages of their pregnancies it resulted in babies who were born with severely deformed limbs, often with hands connected directly to the shoulders and no arm or elbow in between. The same effect was found in their feet…just feet, no legs in between. Over ten thousand children were affected by Thalidomide. It seems that the company responsible for this tragedy didn’t know that pregnant women would be affected so adversely. More rigorous research has resuscitated this drug as a treatment for leprosy. Just don’t take it if you are a young, pregnant leper.
We are constantly exposed to drug commercials on TV. I always listen to them because they hire some really fast talking guy to do them. At the end of these commercials, he will zip like a bottle rocket through the side effects. You really have to listen closely if you want to truly understand what may happen to you if you ingest their product. Here is one of my favorite examples: “Some of the unpleasant side effects may be incontinence, restlessness, thoughts of suicide, sleepwalking, an uncontrollable desire to jay-walk blindfolded or urinate in planter pots at the mall, as well as donning a clown suit and playing “Massa’s In de Cold, Cold Ground” on an out-of-tune banjo at solemn events like funerals. You may also experience rainbow colored poop, excessive drooling, an inability to maintain erections except with plaster of Paris, and, infrequently, your nose may jump off your face and hide in a shoe. If these symptoms persist stop taking the drug, remove the plaster of Paris, find your nose, wipe your chin, throw the damn banjo in the toilet, take off the big funny shoes, the rubber nose, and the orange wig and, as a last resort, consult a physician. He will then shoot your crazy butt and then you can sue him and leave us the heck alone. Vote for tort reform.” Try saying that in fifteen seconds flat as the fast talking guy in present day pharmaceutical commercials is able to do. If he was around in the 1960′s he could have warned us about the dangers of pregnant women giving birth to babies who some have described as having a vague resemblance to a Platypus.
I could think of a lot more arguments against laissez-faire capitalism but lead and Thalidomide are sufficient to bring into question the sanity of the proponents of this destructive economic model. A quick reading of Upton Sinclair’s monumental work The Jungle, which was published in 1906, will provide further evidence that this evil concept works only for the very few. Mr. Sinclair’s book is a most eloquent and persuasive argument against laissez- faire and, I might add, it is a great and inspiring read as well. Written in novel form, the book chronicled the horrific conditions that existed in the meat packing plants in Chicago at the turn of the 20th Century. As part of his research, he took a job in this industry and was able to view first hand the manner in which these filthy enterprises operated. We should all be thankful that Mr. Sinclair was able to bring to light the unsanitary conditions in America’s meat processing industry as well as the abuse of the labor force. The Jungle was one of the most important social novels in American history. Its publication led to public outrage and, eventually, to Congressional hearings which resulted in the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Unfortunately, nothing was done about the abuses that the workers had to endure. Mr. Sinclair was quite disappointed that the righteous outrage of his readers didn’t extend beyond their own stomachs.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, Upton Sinclair was probably responsible for the fact that Ed’s Drive-Thru hot dogs tasted so good. Had he not written this book the absence of regulation in the meat processing industry would have continued. I don’t know how Ms. Rand’s disciples feel about this issue but most of the sane people I know would prefer the exclusion of fecal matter, slop from the shop floors, diseased animals, and the occasional accidentally severed human body part from the mix that eventually becomes a hot dog. That would most certainly have ruined not only Ed’s hot dogs but an enduring childhood memory as well.
Many Jewish people prefer meat that is processed in a strict kosher manner. It is an integral part of their religious beliefs although many non-observant Jews don’t really care if the meat is kosher or not. Maybe we should show equal respect to the beliefs of Ms. Rand’s disciples and allow them to build pre-1906 style meat processing plants where they, and they alone, could partake of the sacraments of their own religion. I would guarantee, however, that as soon as they took one bite out of the resulting product they might have second thoughts. I can see it now: “Waiter, there’s a toenail in my weenie!” or, “Wow, once you remove the eyeballs and the insect parts, this soup is really tasty!”
I would like to express my gratitude to history professor, Dr. John Scott Wilson of the University of South Carolina who encouraged me to read The Jungle. His wise tutelage changed my outlook on life.
Even as an adult I would choose a less-than-perfect VBS popsicle stick Bible fort over Ms. Rand’s philosophy any day. Unlike Ms. Rand, at least these pitiful little constructions didn’t hurt anybody (except once I got a really nasty splinter, a kiss to make it well, and a colored band-aid). It would take a whole lot more than a kiss on the finger and a colored band-aid to make the disciples of Ms. Rand “all better.” What Ms. Rand succeeded in doing was to provide a philosophical cover for the psychiatric disorder known as sociopathy. This condition is characterized, in a nutshell, by a total lack of empathy for others and a belief that the aspirations of the individual supersede the needs of the group. I really don’t know of any recent polls that have been conducted regarding this issue, but I am certain that if you went back in time and interviewed the Twelve Disciples you would find the group thing winning by a score of eleven to one.
I imagine a scene where Ms. Rand and her followers are transported back in time to witness the Sermon on the Mount. This event has been covered time and again both in literature and in cinema, both in serious and not-so-serious interpretations. The most notable example of the latter is the scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the troupe is in the back of the crowd arguing, among other things, over the size of each other’s noses. I am fairly certain that no comedic masterpiece would result if Ms. Rand and a select group of her worshippers were present at the scene. Perhaps they would see the value of the economic model provided by the Sermon. I am speaking of the unlimited fish and bread thing. What good laissez-faire capitalist wouldn’t want to have a bottomless bag of product at no cost? And who on Wall Street would not consider chaining up some mystical dude in a basement who was able to turn water into wine? It sure beats having to pay a living wage.
In all fairness to Ms.Rand, she backed off the offensive passage at the beginning of this essay and didn’t include it in later editions of “We the Living”. For this, she was roundly criticized by some of her followers, many of whom were also against public education as well as any restrictions on child labor. Who knows why she removed it? Maybe she inadvertently wandered into a room full of six-year-olds in a VBS class who were intent upon their popsicle stick Bible forts and she sat down and started making one of her on. It would have been a big improvement over the castle of mud that she left as her legacy.