Anyone who has read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand should be able to recognize the forces at work within the Republican party, where our Galtian overlords (to steal a phrase from Balloon Juice) are expending a whole lot of effort trying to make sure that those who already have a lot of money get to keep theirs (the Bush Tax Cuts, Wall Street Bonuses, the idea that “$250,000 isn’t really rich“) while taking money away from those without (public employees, poor women and children).
Rand believed (if I may be so bold as to put words into her mouth) that she was the advocate of the ultimate meritocracy: everyone succeeded only to the extent that they produced something worthwhile, and that worth was determined by the compensation ones peers were willing to give for whatever had been produced. Any intrusion of the government into these transactions served only to distort and mask incentives, such that people were no longer rewarded for those things that their peers found valuable, but instead rewarded for being able to game the system at the expense of the “movers”, those who produced goods of real value.
I’ve written before about the reasons I don’t think Objectivism works on a broad scale, so I won’t rehash that here. But the behavior of the Republican party lately seems to be shifting ever closer toward policies designed to do what Rand advocated, and reduce the role of government to solely civil defense and enforcement of property laws. Recently, I came across this “law” from Instapundit (Glenn Reynolds) which highlighted, for me, the problems with this Randian approach:
Subsidizing the markers of status doesn’t produce the character traits that result in that status; it undermines them.
When he wrote it, Reynolds (a fairly well-known conservative blogger) was talking about the government’s subsidization of college educations and promotion of homeownership, arguing that making these things easier to attain will not increase the middle-class. Reynolds again:
[H]omeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class.*
Reading Reynolds’ Law clarified the problem that I have with Republican policies these days. Republicans interpret wealth as a “marker” for the Randian ideal, someone who has achieved their prominence through providing services that their peers deem valuable. But as the recent tanking of the economy has shown us, paying someone a high salary does not necessarily mean that they have the traits to provide value to others . . . it frequently just means that they’re good at gaming the system.
I find that distinction to be very important. When I hear people arguing that you can’t tax the wealthy at high rates, I see Reynolds’ law at work. By subsidizing the accumulation of extreme wealth, we’re not producing the character traits that allow people to become wealthy, we’re undermining them. We’re undermining them by assuming that those who have money represent the best in our society, and assuming that those without don’t deserve it. We’re undermining them by allowing those with wealth to bend the political landscape to further their own enrichment and protect the status quo, at the expense of those who might possess the traits to become wealthy, but are too busy worrying about where their next meal will come from or paying their medical bills.