Rand vs Gandhi

gandhiThis post is a response to fellow blogger Daedalus Lex. He asks the question, “How does one live a good life?” and provides two mutually exclusive answers.

Gandhi: Through service to others and simplicity of lifestyle.

Ayn Rand: Through rational self-interest and the advancement of capitalism.

Daedalus sides with Gandhi and so do I, even though we are on different sides of the political/economic divide.

The problem with Ayn Rand’s answer is that capitalism is not a moral framework. Capitalism doesn’t dictate how people should live their lives. It’s an economic system. It’s a rational system for allocating resources efficiently and enabling individuals to make free choices that maximize their personal freedoms.

Does this sound too abstract? Let me illustrate. Capitalism is what lets you decide whether to buy the latest iPhone or to take a two week trip to the Caribbean instead. It’s what enables Apple and the Caribbean hotel to exist.

Capitalism allows people to make choices about their own lives and it brings together teams of people to satisfy the needs of society as determined by the sum total of these individual choices.

One can live in a capitalist system and live a good life, being kind to others. And one can vote for a government that pays out benefits to those in need – the unemployed, the sick, the retired. Capitalism doesn’t compel you to be selfish. It explicitly maximizes your personal freedoms, enabling you to spend your money on a new car or to give it to starving orphans. Both are equally valid choices. Capitalism does not judge. That is one of its advantages – it allows us to make our own choices, free of compulsion from others.

Rand however, insists on making things personal. She dictates that you must act on rational self-interest. She won’t allow you to give your spare change to a homeless person.

But Rand is wrong. She has created a mutually incompatible set of instructions – to maximize personal freedoms and to live according to self-interest. By commanding us to be selfish she takes away our liberty and the possibility of putting others first.

Gandhi wins when he says that to live a good life one should give service to others and live a simple lifestyle. But Gandhi is wrong if he thought that could ever be the basis of an economic system.

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9 responses to “Rand vs Gandhi

  1. This seems too simplistic. Untrammeled capitalism, as it existed at the end of the nineteenth century, does indeed compel you to be selfish (if you’re in a position to be, and are not entirely a victim). The “benefits” for those in need that you mention have been hard-won over more than a century of struggle, as have prohibitions of ten-year-old child labor, the ten-to-twelve hour six-day work week, the absence of a minimum wage, unsafe working conditions — all the result of the “rational self interest” of capitalists maximizing profit. The “free choices” which “maximize personal freedoms” are the result of a highly regulated “capitalism” — which freedoms, not so incidentally, appear to be gradually slipping away, vote by vote in a Congress lobbied to death by Big Money. Were Big Money to succeed in its objectives, as many of us fear it well may, you would see how much personal freedom most of us would then have. In a way, service to others and a simplistic lifestyle are “moral” choices which can only be made by those in the reasonable economic comfort made possible for most people only with legislatively well-controlled capitalism.

    • I don’t understand how freedom of choice can compel anyone to be selfish unless they are already greedy and uncritical. In the nineteenth century, selfish, cruel behaviour was much more the norm, perhaps because of poverty. Who would send their 10 year old child to sweep chimneys unless they were literally starving?

      The reason we no longer send children to sweep chimneys is because incremental improvements in living standards have removed the need in Western society. Similarly, working conditions have improved because workers no longer need to accept unsafe conditions. Legislation no doubt played its part, but it surely just reflects changes that were already taking place.

  2. Capitalism, and even rational self-interest, do not prevent me from giving spare change or my whole fortune to charity. If I believe it is in my self-interest to do so, it’s absolutely consistent. The benefit I receive may be a moment’s good feeling. It may be in the belief that it’s better for my children to earn their own way than to inherit my vast fortune (a la Warren Buffett.)

    If you think of capitalism as a social/economic institution, it is still consistent to feed the hungry. It is still consistent to regulate air and water quality. It is still consistent to require universally available education. As we look at those dollars spent as investments to an improved future, the return we (as a society) expect is greater than the alternatives would provide.

    I am a capitalist. I am an investor. And I am a progressive. I KNOW for a FACT that feeding children with “welfare” spending makes them healthier and allows them to learn better, as research has shown this is true. Their opportunities to contribute positively increase. What is the alternative? And how attractive it that?

    I could go on…

    Good subject. Thanks for bringing it up.

  3. This is so educational. Thank you.

  4. Wow……Steve, I really appreciate this one. Mahatma Gandhi, Father of our nation, followed 11 principles. Ahimsa ( Non Violence), Satya ( Truth) , Asteya ( Non stealing) ,Brahmacharya (Self Discipline), Aparigraha (Non Possession) ,Sharirsrama ( Earn your own bread), Aswada ( Control of Palate ), Sarvatra Bhayavarjana(Fearlessness), Sarva Dharva Samantva ( Equality of religions) ,Swadeshi ( use locally made goods) and Sparshabhavana (Untouchability).

    Simple living and high thinking is covered in Aparigraha.

    My favorite among st Gandhi’s lines is ” Be the change you want to see in the world.”

    Really enjoyed this one…the best among st all your write ups according to me.

  5. Excellent post! Sasinct.

  6. I’m not sure I’d necessarily agree with either of them. Gandhi’s philosophy may lead to happiness for some people, perhaps even most people, but there are probably also plenty of people who get would get more happiness from gadgets and holidays than they would from a simple lifestyle.

    It’s also true that the same technologies that produce luxury goods can improve agricultural efficiency, save lives and reduce poverty and misery in all sorts of unexpected ways. If we in the west started living simple lives then this technological development would stall and manufacturing jobs in developing countries would disappear, leading to economic collapse and humanitarian disaster.

    I really don’t like Rand, and I respect Gandhi, but I’d probably stick to the status quo because I’m not sure that Gandhi’s followers realise how catastrophic the consequences might be if we all followed Gandhi’s advice.

    • Gandhi’s advice to help others and to live a life free of material attachments is something I agree with, but to reject technology and economic progress would be catastrophic. I’m a passionate advocate of the life enhancing abilities of technology, and I often write about this on the blog. Technology is what stands between us and poverty, starvation and disease. But more than this, economic growth is what enables freedom, tolerance and human rights – things that were largely missing until quite recently in human history.

  7. Thanks for finally talking about >Rand vs Gandhi | Blog Blogger Bloggest <Loved it!

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