Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Ayn Rand Legacy

The BBC recently ran this piece about Ayn Rand:

As always, people either captured the superficial good (and in reality, not so good at all) point about what she said ("regulation" is bad, it leads to communist-like dystopia!), or the dead bad about her (on a personal level she was an unconvinceable, unopen-to-further-debate cult-leader-like fanatic who religiously clung to her views).

And she absolutely said and did all that.

But these pieces fail to explain the two fundamentally good things that she said, and why her books are, in fact, so popular -
1. She is the modern-day mother of meritocracy. The philosophical root of any young, go-get'em startup that survives by merit rather than inertia, that challenges conventions and gets mind-blowing stuff done simply by being right and smart, whether it's the Google of 10 years ago or Atlassian - that sentiment of making the world better using things that work is the guts of the Randian belief system.

2. Any Rand offered a method of thinking - rationally and objectively.
She then plugged in the "world she knew", which is two options really - radical communism she "experienced" (read: was persecuted by) in the Soviet world and radical laissez-faire capitalism of the 50's/60's US, and came out with the result - "Communism BAD, Capitalism GOOD". And in her time, that may have seemed to be the right answer.

So we put Alan Greenspan in the Fed reserve, put the pedal to the metal.... and proceeded to learn just how messed up the world becomes when you give people huge incentives for reckless driving after having disassembled all the seatbelts. Four years on, we're still pulling European corpses from the GFC trainwreck.

So I propose we go back to the start - that same way of thinking exactly. Being rational. Being objective.
And rather than accepting Rand's answer from that equation using 1950 parameters, we use the same equation and plug in what we know in post-trainwreck today.
We know today that most of the time, It's not the noble John Galt, Hank Reardon, Howard Roarke or their real-world analogues like Henry Ford, Bill Hewlett, David Packard, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Bryn or Shai Agassi who ultimately always win out. A lot of the time it's those who externalize their costs to someone else, who win by taking the cheaper route of dumping their waste in a river so the widget can be made a dollar cheaper.
It's organizations like Monsanto, like Lehman Brothers, like AIG, like BP, like the entire climate-change-denial lobby, those who cut corners and make a dollar later to cost someone else two dollars in the ensuing cleanup. Does anyone other than their shareholders (and perhaps their employees) think what these guys are doing is awesome?

What's more important to us?
Do the taxes they pay into our national coffers justify the world-scale breakage they bring? Would we feel the same way towards taxes from blood-diamond enterprises in Africa? Slavery and human trafficking? Selling guns to Assad that we know will be used to shoot children? Do we care?

We'd come to the obvious conclusion. We'd say "Wait. It's not rational to have a system that rewards cutting costs by sweeping shit under the rug for everyone else to pay later". It's not rational to idealize unrestrained Capitalism when its direct result is making grandchildren pay for the party we had, and destroy the planet we live on in the process.

Suicide. Is. Not. Rational.

And this is where I come full circle to the second thing Ayn Rand argued, early, in her youth.
That you need to embrace stuff not solely on the merit of how sexy the idea is, but on the merit of "does it actually work?". She may have applied it to communism, but I think it's time we apply it to Laissez-faire and fanatic deregulation too.

Ayn Rand is dead. 
We know today that her ANSWERS were wrong. Perhaps less wrong than a communist system that imploded upon itself. But nevertheless wrong.
But her QUESTIONS were right.

She can't answer those questions anymore for us like the Tea Party mob in the US think she should, and in her later years, she would have probably been too much of a fanatic to objectively do so anyway.

We need to let Marx and Adam Smith go, and come up with some new answers ourselves.

First off, we do need a merit system. Total equality doesn't work.
We want to build on the old ways that do work, but we want them challenged. We want the Googles and Facebooks, Wikileakses, Wikipedias and Better Places to come around and lend a shoulder to fix our world. Whatever sentiment you have towards corporations, these guys are the only heavy artillery we really have, and we're lucky to have them. And we need more. We want people to WANT to start them. We need to tell our 6 year olds that "If you put yourself to it and do awesome, impossible things, the universe will appreciate, support you and give you more rope". We absolutely need to incentivise merit.

We need equality of opportunity, but not equality in everything, because the Robin Hood necessitates a bully with a club, who usually resembles Assad or Putin more than good'ol Robin, who is not himself quite equal to everyone else by merit of his club.

We need to fix big problems. Not some of. Not one of. All of. Climate. Economy. Dictators. Opening up a base set of services we enjoy (food, clean water, a light bulb, mobility, security, education, opportunity) to the part of the world where they're not taken for granted. Tall order, because the way we "make" stuff today doesn't scale to those levels of demand. We don't know how to make that much stuff (at all, or without some world-destroying downsides).

I hope everyone agrees that planetary suicide is bad, and that any person deserves dignity irrespective of group affiliation.

I'm of the genuine belief that everyone - from the hippie who will remind us we're humans, not robots, to the tycoon that will open up the next wave of societal possibility - is trying to solve the same problem. A world filled with air to breathe, possibility, openness, health and people busy creating awesome. My charge will be to convince you the entire gamut in between (or vast majority thereof) is on the same side. 
Objectively. Will a communist approach achieve our goals? I'd argue that's not likely. More likely, it will destroy the economy, dry up the capital markets that businesses need, create more unemployment than we've ever seen, and let other countries pick up the slack we left off, their entrepreneurs making things more competitively than our government-owned industries, becoming wealthy and powerful in a globalised world as we become poor and weak.

Objectively, will a pure capitalist approach achieve them? Sure. And we'll be pretending to be rolling in money when the oceans rise and we run out of air to breathe, while using every penny we have to pay for wall street gambling gone south and a higher incidence of natural disasters.

So Objectively, what will?
A carefully engineered balance of the good from either side, where a single word like "Capitalism" or "Communism" or "Socialism" can never capture the subtleties of the delicate balance needed for the good from both sides and the bad from neither.

A system that carefully balances the importance of the individual, the importance of a merit- rather a prescribed-right-way system. A system that allows you to make a killing doing awesome, and the importance of making sure that everyone in that system is wearing his own costs, and playing by the rules.

I don't want to define this system by negation, by what it's not. It has enough merit of its own.

I don't want to call it "Sane capitalism", "Corrected capitalism" or "Fixed Capitalism", because what separates Monsanto from Wikipedia is not how much capital they make. It's how awesome they are. How do you define and quantify awesome?
I don't want to name it by where it is relative to other ideas, like "Radical Centrism".
I don't want to call it a form of communism, because the creativity to fix the world cannot and will not come from a communal organisation committee. It'll come from a million creative guys in a million garages, with and idea and balls of steel to challenge the world with it.
And to fix the world of its problems, to make stuff in new ways that are sufficient for an unfathomably larger number of earth populants than we ever supplied (because they deserve dignity too) and not kill the planet in the process, we will need  to unleash millions of these creative guys, not Ayn Rand's handful or the meager few any single organisation, government or political party can centrally feed, resource, evaluate, and manage and wear their startup risks.
It's about creating awesome engineered to have and run on its own economic steam, and rewards its maker with more capital to make more awesome of his own choosing.
This is the Viable Awesomism core.
Let'em be Awesome, and Let'em be viable. And get the bloody hell out of their way.

Look around you, at companies big and small, at your government's policies.
Ask which ones create awesome viably. Which types you would want to see around in a better world.
Ask which ones can be turbocharged by unplugging them from government and/or charity dollars.
And maybe, if we showed a 25-year-old Ayn Rand our 2012 world, what Laissez-faire did and what our Viable Awesomist organisations today have already achieved, she would have thought so too.