The Hand of Rand
A discussion on Dawn Eden’s blog the other day about the problem of sex-selection abortion struck a note that I haven’t heard before. The intial post was a story about the prevalence of this practice in India, and a challenge to the refusal of pro-choice feminists to condemn it. In response, one of them attempted to explain that the refusal to “condemn…the choices women in countries like India and China have made” is a recognition of the fact that the choice to abort female babies is, in a society which devalues women, “rational.” The conditions which lead to that calculation are deplorable, but not the decision itself, which is a reasonable response to the conditions.
I was more than a bit shocked at that. To excuse a wrong as having been done out of desperation is not the same thing as to call it rational. And this “rational” choice was contrasted with the “sexist” choice which the same act on the part of an American would constitute, and which would be worthy of condemnation. At first glance the capriciousness of this view is striking: a woman who decides to abort her female child for economic reasons is not to be condemned, but a woman who does the same because she would prefer for some personal reason to have a male child is guilty of sexism and has done something deplorable. If the woman’s choice is sovereign in any case, as the feminists in the discussion all seem to agree, what difference do her motives make, and what right does anyone else have to judge them?
More important, though, is the implicit definition of “rational”: not “in accord with right reason” but “in accord with material self-interest.” It was surprising to me to hear this coming from the political and cultural left. It’s the sort of thing that one expects from the libertarian right, and specifically from those influenced by Ayn Rand. I don’t know that the commenter had Rand’s concept of “rational self-interest” in mind, but his or her use of the term “rational” is certainly reminiscent of it.
I’ve suspected for a long time that the influence of Ayn Rand on American life and thought is far greater than is generally acknowledged or understood. Most intellectuals don’t like her, don’t take her very seriously, and find her more than a bit ridiculous. Leftists have obvious and immediate reasons to hate her gospel of self-interested capitalism, and National Review (or at least Whittaker Chambers) attempted to excommunicate her from the conservative movement in the 1950s, although her anti-Communism as well as the conservative alliance with libertarianism kept that effort from really sticking.
But somebody reads her. In 1991 a survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month club found Atlas Shrugged to be second in influence only to the Bible in the U.S. As of this writing paperback editions of both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are in the top 1000 sellers at Amazon.com (at #585 and #644 respectively, with other editions selling respectably). The Penguin edition of War and Peace—I picked it thinking its sales are less likely to be affected by movie tie-ins and mandatory student purchases—is currently at #5,750.
It’s hard to imagine a neater and quicker summation of the confused currents of thought running through the popular mind (the American mind, anyway). One wonders how many of those surveyed put both books near the top.
My wife’s brother has been in the hospital for the past two weeks, perhaps terminally ill, almost helpless, disoriented, and depressed. His life ceased to be materially productive some years ago and he has not made a great deal of effort to resist and counter the effects of the type 1 diabetes that has dogged his life since he was four and is causing his slow physical deterioration. It’s hard to say whether he has even been enjoying his existence for the past couple of years. He has no wife or children; his only living relatives are three siblings and several cousins. He has few interests. He is costing himself, the government (Medicaid), the electrician’s union (a pension from his working days), and, indirectly, his siblings a considerable amount of money.
My wife is running herself ragged trying to do whatever she can for him while still taking care of all her other obligations. She spends several hours a day at the hospital, trying to encourage him and make him comfortable, talking to the doctors and nurses about his condition in search of anything that might help him improve. He is only alive today because she donated a kidney to him ten years ago. He doesn’t seem terribly appreciative of any of this.
Material self-interest plays no part whatever in her actions. I don’t think she has in fact given her reasons a great deal of thought: she is simply doing what she believes one should do in this circumstance, and her conscience would let her do no less. To paraphrase Sam Spade’s famous speech from The Maltese Falcon, when your brother is sick you’re supposed to take care of him.
Rational self-interest would offer a simple solution to this problem: it would instruct her either to abandon her brother or arrange for what is probably the process of his dying to proceed more speedily to its goal. God save both her and her brother from rational self-interest, and God save the U.S.A.