Swans Commentary » swans.com March 27, 2006  



Who Stole The Common Good?
The Shadow of Ayn Rand


by Julian Edney





(Swans - March 27, 2006)   Ideas run a society.

Leaders come and go. Cabinets get shuffled. The sun rises and expires. But there's something you can't turn off and on with a remote. It's the national frame of mind.

Frame of mind is partly a level of optimism, our buoyancy balanced against our fears. Frame of mind is part faith. But frame of mind is also what ideas we hold close and are prepared to defend, like justice.

So from time to time maybe we can turn out Congress, we can always flip the TV channel, but not so a nation's frame of mind. It's set deeper.

Currently we are in trouble with our national frame of mind. And I believe there's been foul play, as if a fundamental idea has been dropped in the river.

Can you really murder an idea?

My thesis is that the concept of the common good is an idea that has been disappeared.

What exactly is the common good? It's the shared benefit people get from being in a group. If you're on a soccer team you cooperate to share the thrill of winning. Special rewards are possible. Another: two people are just two people. But if a friendship grows, the two people are a tiny collective. They work together and share a common outlook. Trust grows, they support each other, later there may grow an unspoken sense of obligation to each other, and so big things become possible. More examples: ships' crews, marriages, business partnerships, military units, countries; each involves a "with" or an "us." In a nation that has a common good, everybody mucks in together, and society takes care of its own.

This bond can be destroyed. Once mutual trust goes, the friendship will fall apart; the individuals will stop caring and may start competing. The soccer team will break up, a nation can fall into hostile factions.

Is the group stuff all good? Some people think not: if you know you are excellent at something, you don't want to get involved with or be part of a group because the others, average people, might slow you down. And there are people called free riders. They don't put in effort, but they're always there to collect the rewards. But most of the time, the rewards possible from collective effort so outweigh what individuals can do that groups start spontaneously, everywhere.

Eerily, in the United States nobody talks about the common good any more, at least not in the media.

That is an enormity. It's dragging this nation under.

Any death creates a silence. Witness these silences: In March 1964, a woman in New York, Kitty Genovese, was knife-stabbed to death one evening while 38 neighbors watched silently and did nothing. They didn't want to get involved. (1)

In 1990, The New England Journal of Medicine (2) reported that adult life expectancy in Harlem, N.Y., is shorter than in Bangladesh. Silence. Nothing has ever been done.

More recently, we all stared at refugees from hurricane Katrina as officials did virtually nothing.

And now, official reports of hunger in America (3) -- America, the biggest exporter of food to the rest of the world -- once again it's very quiet. And nothing has been done.

This is not a nation taking care of its own. It's not a group with a common good. Something is missing. Instead of a national "with," we have indifference.

And where did this come from?

I'm arguing the common good didn't just expire one day from lethargy. Humans are naturally sociable. They like to make new friends and get into things. So we're looking for a force, an idea, that's powerful enough to destroy what we do naturally.

Ayn Rand's ideology was that force. Ayn Rand was a public flamboyant who wrote, lectured, and harangued from the 1940s to the 1970s. She mounted vaulting attacks on the common good. Her point: that "mutual obligation" stuff robs you of your personal freedom. To get ahead, she argued, you have to break the bonds of obligation. Selfishness is actually virtue. Altruism toward the less able, she said, is a vice. If you have real talent you should avoid groups, teams, and organizations. You should work on solo flight, not stopping to help average people who are hopelessly mired in conformity. Her two novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, have heroes who are pioneering, productive loners. And a free market, she argues, needs such heroes; because it is a dog-eat-dog world in which people with excellence propel themselves to the top and do more good for their nation in their selfishness than all the welfare and social programs can. Welfare programs just perpetuate mediocrity.

Ayn Rand declared repeatedly in The Virtue of Selfishness that there is no common good; that it is a fallacy trumped up to enslave the productive geniuses of the world into providing for the poor and the lazy.

What Rand promotes beyond anything else is personal freedom. Above justice. Above caring for your fellow man. Above trust. Above equality.

She also calls this rational. But taken to its logical extreme, Rand's is a society in which freedom trumps morality, greed trumps trust. If, on the way up, the strong crush the weak, that is survival of the fittest (the essence of Social Darwinism, a discredited philosophy from the Robber Baron era saying that animal natural selection also applies to humans.)

But was Ayn Rand influential? Hugely. Her books have sold over three million copies -- more than any philosopher. Her biographers estimate that her books and those of her followers still sell over 400,000 a year. (4) Alan Greenspan, recent Chief of the Federal Reserve was one of her students and wrote three of the essays in her Capitalism. President Reagan's inner staff was largely Randians.

Rand's brass-knuckle selfishness on the one hand, the common good on the other. These two ideas are mutually exclusive. You can't fit the big pot in the little one. One had to go.

So the virtue of the common good was submerged. Instead, we have indifference, which now masquerades as freedom. So much, it appears, leaders exploit their own followers who depend on them. So much, Equality hides her face.

Let alone Kitty Genovese: we cannot even pull together in a concerted effort when a major crisis like Katrina hits. This monstrous indifference has become another part of the national frame of mind. Man overboard? Oh, well.

Will the common good ever rise again? It will be difficult.

Television, which catches the audience for its advertisers, reveals today's imperatives. They are pleasure, possession, prestige, and power. It seems very few people can stop watching television. It's not just that these Randian qualities promote success as individualism. It's that this has risen almost to the status of a spiritual legacy. A toxic one, and a powerful one.

Could a new idea, a healing concept, break through this silence?

Actually, something is already stirring.

There is a new concept: "social capital" -- originally coined by J. S. Coleman, now expanded by Professor Kawachi of Harvard and his colleagues, and recently spotlighted in a Scientific American article. (5)

When researchers get into the streets and survey people's opinions, they can rate communities and neighborhoods on the results. A community has high social capital if people say they trust one another and help each other out, and if they belong to local groups (service groups, tenant associations, unions, etc.) which have an impact; the community has an atmosphere of cohesiveness. A community has low social capital if residents don't belong to organizations, don't trust each other and say others try to take advantage of them. Researchers like Kawachi also check out health statistics and crime rates. He and his colleagues have found that communities with low social capital also have worse health, higher mortality rates, and higher rates of violent crime. (6) Also, cohesive communities turn out to be more egalitarian.

Ayn Rand's advice destroys social capital. You can't be dog-eat-dog selfish, competitive, helping nobody, and at the same time expect to grow a cohesive community. By deduction, Ayn Rand's prescription would have a devastating effect on health and lead to crime and indifference.

Ideas run a society. If we are to help ourselves, the common good is an idea that must rise again.

We have to make the choice.

So, do you want to find out if your friends, coworkers or spouse understand the common good? Some do, some don't. Try a simple game you can play called the Nuts Game (7) -- with things you find around the house.

Three people sit around a kitchen bowl. You, the fourth person, with a timer, start off placing ten small items in the bowl -- quarters, dollar bills, or nuts. Tell the three players the goal is that each of them get as many items as possible. Tell them one other thing before they start: every ten seconds (you have your watch ready) you will look in the bowl and double the number of items remaining there by replenishing from an outside source (a separate pile of quarters on the side).

I used to run this game with college students. You would think the players would have figured out that if they had all waited, not taking anything out of the bowl for a while, the contents of the bowl would soon have grown very big, automatically doubling every ten seconds. Eventually they could each have divided up a pot that had grown large. But in fact, sixty percent of these groups never made it to the first 10-second replenishment cycle. Group members grabbed all they could as soon as they could, leaving nothing in the bowl to be doubled (destroying the common good), and each player wound up with none or a few items. I saw the bowl knocked to the floor in the greedy melee. And even if allowed to try again, not all groups cooperatively worked out a patient, conserve-as-you-go playing style, necessary for eventual big scores. They didn't trust each other.


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1.  Kalat, J.W. Introduction to psychology, Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005. p. 564.  (back)

2.  McCord, C. and H.P. Freeman. "Excess mortality in Harlem," New England Journal of Medicine, 1990, 322, 173-177.  (back)

3.  Nord, M., Andrews, M., Carlson, S. "Household Food Security in the United States," 2004. United States Department of Agriculture report ERS-ERR-11, October 2005.  (back)

4.  Walker, J. The Ayn Rand cult, Chicago, Ill. Open Court, 1999.  (back)

5.  Sapolsky, R. "Sick of poverty," Scientific American, 2005, 293 (December), 92-99.  (back)

6.  Kawachi, I, Kennedy, P. and Wilkinson, R. (Eds) Society and population health reader: Income inequality and health, New Press, New York, 1999. This excellent book is a collection of research articles with a summary Chapter 40 by Wilkinson.  (back)

7.  Edney, J.J. "The Nuts Game: A concise commons dilemma analog," Environmental Psychology and Nonverbal Behavior, 1979, Volume 3, pp.252-254 -- also at http://www.g-r-e-e-d.com/Nuts%20Game.htm  (back)


Internal Resources

America the 'beautiful'

Patterns Which Connect


About the Author

Julian Edney teaches college in Los Angeles. He can be contacted through his Website.



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This Edition's Internal Links

The Demonization And Death Of Slobodan Milosevic - Louis Proyect

The Milosevic Case - John Catalinotto Interviews Sara Flounders

War Is Always Murder - Deck Deckert

Who's The Enemy? - Philip Greenspan

Keith Jarrett In San Francisco - Gilles d'Aymery

Fat Pigs And The American Drama - Charles Marowitz

Government-Sanctioned Food Poisoning - Jan Baughman

US Supreme Court And Catholic Church Dogma - George Beres

William T. Hathaway's Summer Snow - Milo Clark

The Law Of Diminishing Returns - Poem by Gerard Donnelly Smith

Letters to the Editor

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Published March 27, 2006