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Letters from Downunder

Who in the World is Ayn Rand?
Submitted by Lindsay Coker, Melbourne Australia

Greed is all right Greed is healthy.
You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.
(Ivan F Boesky, commencement address, Berkeley, 1966)

Everyone that is greedy of gain;
which taketh away the life of the owners thereof
(Proverbs 1:19)

(July, 2010) From some 10,000 miles away, American society appears to be schizoid. On one hand the continuing parade of Christian values seems to be saying we are a God fearing people who live in accordance with the teachings of Christ , while on the other hand there are daily revelations of sly, cunning business practices rampant in your world of mostly unregulated finance.

I am quite sure that the great majority of folk totally deplore this side of their great nation, yet it is also apparent that an enormous number believe that Ivan Boesky was right in his opening address to students at UCLA at Berkeley. Nothing wrong with greed, is there? Allow me to introduce Ayn Rand, who took this notion to new heights or depths, depending on your values and gave Mr. Boesky his soapbox.

Born Alisa Rosenbaum in 1905, she was a Russian émigré to the United States,and died there in 1982. She wrote books, screenplays and poetry, achieving public recognition through The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. These books and other articles set out the core of her beliefs, which she calls Objectivism , and which has at its heart the idea of Good Greed.

In her ideas on individual rights, laissez-fair capitalism, and constitutionally limited government, she opposed all forms of collectivism and stateism such as Fascism, Communism, and the Welfare State, instead believing in Ethical Egoism and The Ethics of Altruism . These are to be expressed in individual lives as the supremacy of reason, the virtue of selfishness, and that moral purpose is the pursuit of happiness. Human values are also objective, meaning don t get sentimental about what happens to others.

Such has been the impact of these ideas that a whole culture has grown up round them, causing citizens to put themselves first and others, including their neighbour, last. When it comes to finance, the way in which the structuring and marketing of investments has developed would have made King Canute happy.

The idea of investment is, of course, one based on letting your money work for you so you do not have to do as much physical labour yourself, surely nothing wrong with that, is there? It is the basis of capitalism, after all, and has been around since the Medicis, who saw a way to make other people s money work for them. One small step for the powerful, another set of steps for the unaware. That stepladder has sprouted wings, to mix a metaphor, and the means by which investment sleight-of-hand has caught out many a trusting person, group and nation is more than an artform, it has become the Houdini of Hoodwink.

And the name of the most recent and brilliant Magician is Goldman Sachs. Whether they ever read Ayn Rand is doubtful, but her ideas have been so well learnt, possibly at the feet on Mr. Boesky, that they seem to be truly confused by the outrage around the world. Having built up a rarely disputed reputation for trustworthiness, they toiled and tinkered to construct a system so far removed from reality that it would make them rich beyond anyone s dreams, be incomprehensible, and they then set about selling it to the world.

Banks, nations, financial institutions, all manner of funds got into it because they were told it was Gold-plated Goldman Sachs , and not that it was stuff that they had organised to turn to dross in the very near future. When that happened, of course, there was outrage, but no redress. You puts your money in, you takes your chances, and if it goes bad, baby, kaboom!

To quote Matt Trebbi, writing recently in the Guardian, There have been a lot of greedy financiers and banks in history, but what makes Goldman stand out is its truly bizarre cultist/religious belief in the rightness of what it does. The point was driven home in England last year, when Goldman s international adviser, sounding exactly like a character in Atlas Shrugged, said The injunction of Jesus to love ourselves is an endorsement of self-interest.

I doubt if the Greek government, or that of England, Portugal, Spain, Iceland and others would agree. The economy of the whole world is reeling, close to an abyss, and may yet plunge over the edge. The groundwork was done in America, when deregulation of parts of the financial area was extended because, it was assumed, greed on such a grand scale could not be possible - surely?

Ayn Rand made a statement about self interest, and neglected to inform her readers, (or herself, no doubt), that it was based upon half truths. There s nothing funny about Ayn Rand s writing. There is even less fun to be had from the results of her ideas. The really sad thing is that the ground was so fertile. A people who did believe the dictum of doing unto others as they would be done unto would see that the result of being greedy on a grand scale was likely to be horribly visited upon themselves and their descendants.

Self reliance, Ethical Egoism are good, but not without restraint. Most of us have some self interest at heart, but are also aware that we need to care for others for life to have much meaning. And King Kanute, if you recall, lost the thing he loved most because of his greed. His daughter, who was turned to gold.

It may be time to look again at the whole quote as used in England: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. And, as a reminder of what one of your Great Presidents said in his inaugural address on March 4, 1933, In the field of world policy I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbour. FDR, of course.

Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker