Who Said Anything about Hating the Poor?

Here’s the situation. A friend posts a link on Facebook to this Cafe Hayek bit disagreeing with an article in the Wall Street Journal complaining that the government is suing JP Morgan Chase for liabilities that the government bullied Chase into taking on. Russ Roberts is not convinced this is a real injustice, since, after all, JP Morgan Chase got a bunch of assets at bargain-basement prices for the deal. Really, this is just the government taking its cut – or, rather, putting on a show for the public – a show that Chase knew would have to be put on and probably budgeted for.

Well, one of the friend’s left-wing friends "shared" this link with some pablum along the lines of "Holy crap! A cafe Hayek post that isn’t just Ayn Randist poor person-bashing. Even a stopped clock…"

"Poor person-bashing[sic]"

And here we go again. Why, I wonder, do so many people trash Rand gratuitously without even having read her?

I’ve read Atlas Shrugged many times through, and I don’t remember anything in there that remotely "bashes" the poor. Quite the contrary, the enemies in that book are all exactly the kind of rent seeking parasites that the left constantly complains about. Indeed, in that sense this is ironically arguably one of the more "Ayn Randist" posts that Cafe Hayek has ever set to electrons.

Were any poor people portrayed badly in Atlas Shrugged? Well, yes. But never because they were poor. Atlas Shrugged is written in opposition to asking for handouts, whether that occurs on the small scale of a bum asking for free money in the opening scene, or rich businessmen asking the government to shackle their more productive competition for them (which is most of the rest of the book). In an ideal world, financial reward would invariably follow productive work – but the whole point of Atlas Shrugged is to show what happens when you have a system that rewards unproductive people instead. That’s hardly a left-wing message, of course, but neither is it anything like "poor person-bashing." The poor in Atlas Shrugged barely make an appearance, but to the extent that they do, they run the gamut from productive people unfairly kept down by the system to rent-seekers who simply don’t happen to be as well-connected as the businessmen who are the book’s true villains. Just as the left wing prefers to depict them, the poor in Atlas Shrugged are mostly victims of circumstances beyond their control. They’re not uniformly blameless, but they are generally more sinned against than sinning.

I bring this up partly to complain about people misrepresenting Ayn Rand, but mostly to complain about class-based worldviews. What’s underlying this guy’s complaint about libertarians and objectivists, when you get down to it, is their refusal to assign virtue based on social class. The Left thinks it is in an argument with the cartoon version of Calvinism, in which material wealth is a sign of God’s favor. To the Left, it is obvious that wealth is not always (or even usually) the result of hard work and value creation. As often as not, it accumulates to people who have gamed the system in some way – or else had the system gamed for them by being born to someone else who gamed the system. The argument seems to be that since wealth is not necessarily an outward reflection of virtue, it is alright to take it from people and give it to other people. An unfortunate side-effect of this argument, though, is that it tends to make a virtue out of poverty. More often than not, the Left ends up simply inverting the cartoon Calvinist paradigm by assuming that anyone who is poor is poor through no fault of their own – or if through fault of their own then there is nothing (or at least nothing moral) they can do on their own to rectify the situation. But of course this is just the same error on its head. If it is the case that the rich are not always rich because they created value, then it is equally the case that the poor are not always poor through hard luck. In many cases, they are poor because of repeated bad decision-making, and at some point attempts to help such people end up reinforcing their bad choices (to wit, end up turning bad choices into "good" choices by incentivizing them).

What the Left consistently misunderstands about Rand is that she actually agrees with them that a great many wealthy people are wealthy for the wrong reasons, and that a great many more people are poor than really should be. She would like to change that too. But she understands that handing out money to correct rent seeking is pouring gasoline on a fire. The ultimate goal is not total equality nor a rigid social order, but a system where wealth really is an outward sign of virtue, and poverty really is an outward sign of deprivation. And the second more than the first, actually. Rand does’t make a virtue out of wealth because she understands first that not all jobs are equally important, and second that not everyone can or wants to or should do the "important" jobs. The most important jobs (basically capital allocation – investment) should be done by the people best suited to do them, and other people should do whatever they like so long as they are productive. Not everyone will be rich, but the point is that if you do things that other people find useful you are guaranteed never to be poor. Rand wants a world where if you are poor, then because there is something wrong with you – be it a moral or a physical failing. And if it’s a physical one, then we can find ways to help.

I suspect the real reason the Left doesn’t like this argument is similar to why religious people tend to hate atheists worse than members of rival factions, and why gay marriage supporters hate it when you bring up the idea of abolishing government recognition of marriage and replacing it with civil contracts. Religious people reserve special venom for atheists because atheists ask questions they can’t answer. At least someone from a rival religion isn’t going to be so exasperating as to actually want you to prove any of the claims you’re making! And at least someone who supports only traditional marriage isn’t going to ask you why marriage should be a prerequisite for all those property rights you claim for yourself! Well, I think it’s like that with the Left and Ayn Rand too. At least if you’re talking to a Conservative you won’t have to defend your right to forcibly reallocate wealth – you’ll only have to defend your reallocation targets. And hey, that’s easy, right? Because at least then you’re sticking up for at least some people who really do deserve better against people who can afford to pay. It’s a lot harder if you have to defend your qualifications to make allocations decisions in the first place – because, let’s face it, you’re NOT qualified to make allocation decsisions.

And so the myth of Rand the poor-hater is born.

The take-home point here, in case anyone missed it, is that’s it’s very important to actually check up on claims that people make rather than just repeating convenient shit you’ve overheard. The people who think Rand hated the poor will really have a lot of trouble explaining that long section in Atlas Shrugged in rural Michigan, where a community has been devastated by the loss of an auto plant, and authorial sympathy is clearly with the former workers, and not with the people who ran the plant into the ground. The only part about that section that the Left might not like is the suggestion that the solution to the problem is for someone to give these capable people jobs.

Which of course is why you should not like the Left.

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