Allan Powell: Ayn Rand's dream is a nightmare

October 19, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

The “Age of Greed” authored by Jeff Madrick, an economic columnist for The New York Times, might be considered by some as just another treatise on our latest economic collapse. This would not be a fair assessment of this fine book because it is a very personal account of the people who were contributors to our financial woes. Madrick gives one biographical account after another of those who led this frenetic, single-minded race for money and the thinking behind this unbridled lust for wealth.

Many were admirers of Ayn Rand and her praise of disciplined self-interest and Milton Friedman and his worship of an unfettered marketplace. This makes exciting chatter at a Tea party but a source of real problems when held by the head of the Federal Reserve. Alan Greenspan was a personal friend and an admirer of both, as are the two Republican candidates for the White House.

When Mark Twain wrote about financier Jay Gould, in the first age of greed that people marveled at his lust for money. In the present age of greed it is about time to recognize that this lust can reach psychiatric proportions. Of Jay Gould, Twain wrote that he was, “The mightiest disaster which has ever befallen this country. The people had desired money before this day, but he taught them to fall down and worship it.” Americans must have taken Gould seriously because they have a profound admiration for people that excel at accumulating money.

Ted Turner, for example, blurted out in an interview, “You need to control everything. You want to have a hospital and a funeral home, so that when people die in the hospital you move them right over to the funeral home next door. When they’re born, you get ’em. When they’re sick, you get ’em. When they die, you get ’em.”

What is interesting about Ted Turner and another member of the insatiable limit club, Sam Walton, is their inability to recognize the difference between creative development of a business and a psychiatric fixation on money and power. When Walton dominated a county, he coveted a state. When he dominated a state, he coveted a nation. He then had the world as his domain. Why do we not recognize a no-saturation habit for what it is? When someone radically overeats, we call this gluttony. Also, when someone overdrinks regularly, they are called an alcoholic. When someone devotes a lifetime to the frenetic acquisition of money and power, they should be called greedy.

While all of these biographies are interesting case studies in the art of paper fabrication and manipulation, one specialist in the takeover of other businesses attracted attention. These takeovers were “friendly” or “hostile” and there have been periods when agreeable mergers were popular and periods when takeovers were more popular. Joe Flom, a Brooklynite son of Russian immigrants whose father “couldn’t provide for his family,” achieved fame for his successful career in corporate takeovers. What made this job attractive were the enormous fees lawyers made.

There was no regard for the carnage and havoc crushed upon those who lost their jobs or pensions. It is hard to believe that Bain Capital was any different from those reported in the career of Joe Flom. In earlier days, piracy was seen as piracy — using guns, swords and brutality to get other people’s wealth. Today’s takeover piracy is more polished, clever, devious and acceptable. Joe Flom even earned a fair degree of respect because of his skills. After all, he was only carrying out the mandate of a free market and would have been applauded by Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan and host of other libertarians. He had the liberty to take away the liberty of others — regardless of the means.

It is a modern tragedy that we, as a fairly enlightened people, have not recognized that we are living in a new age of greed. It should be obvious that a major political party has been usurped by people who proudly accept and promote the philosophy of unabashed self-interest. This political ideology has got this nation into the mess we are in. They are like the couple that is in a heated debate about what color to paint the kitchen wall, while the foundation of the house is crumbling.

This house of cards was built on Wall Street, under the inspired directions of such flawed models as Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan and a host of students from our best business and economics schools who were so mesmerized by the house of paper that they did not foresee the coming storm that blew down the house. 

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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