Atlas Shrugged is a book by philosopher Ayn Rand, the founder of the intellectual school known as objectivism. In her own words, Objectivism is ‘the concept of Man as a heroic being, with his own happiness being his moral purpose in life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.’ The book, for some reason that I cannot understand, is one of my favorite books; despite its 1200+ pages, its wordiness, overly dramatic prose and one-dimensional characterizations, the theme of the book, to quote the title of another Ayn Rand book, “the Virtue of Selfishness,” is one that should resonate with any Conservative heart.
Selfishness has gotten a bad rap through the years. I was taught from an early age that selfishness was to be avoided, that one must think of our brothers and sisters, neighbors, and ‘fellow man.’ That people were starving in China, and it was selfish to not worry about their needs…that it was essential to help others in need, and those who actually sacrificed to save others were lauded as heroes. My sister tells me all the time that she has a good life, and feels a responsibility to ‘pay it back’ to someone.
All this is well and good. Helping others is a way that communities ensure stability. Being selfish does not mean one cannot help others. It does mean, however, that one should worry about one’s own needs, first, before one thinks about the needs of another. One cannot help anyone if they have needs that must be satisfied.
A religious leader was once giving a sermon about charity. He described what he called “cheap Christian mercy.” This is not a slap at Christians, mind you, but that is what he called it and I cannot think of a better phrase. His example of this was someone who is approached by a beggar on the street, asking for money. The person gives the beggar a dollar, and walks on. The giver feels good. He has ‘done something,’ helped someone out, The beggar has not been helped; he has a dollar. It has not changed his life. He was a beggar before the dollar, and is a beggar after the dollar. The giver is the one who has benefited from this transaction. Much of what goes for charity is in this category of giving. The intention of the charity is to make the giver feel better, and helps the givee very little, if at all.
It is hard to pass by someone who is suffering, without wanting to do something to alleviate that suffering…yet, is it better to give something, anything, even if it does no good for the person you are giving to, or is it better to realize that this person is not your responsibility, you cannot do anything to help this person (or you do not have the time and resources to do so, even if you wanted to) and to move on?
Most people would have trouble ‘moving on’ because, not only do they feel they are being selfish, but somehow feel ashamed of their own monetary self-sufficiency and happiness, the benefit of their hard work and effective use of their resources. Yet, in that example, the selfishness is not selfishness at all, just an acknowledgement that, of all the potential actions that can be taken in that situation, none will change the situation. You cannot affect the situation. All you can do is go on with your life.
We see this in the world. At present, the Darfur region of Sudan is a disaster area. Millions are homeless; tens of thousands have died and are dying. Rape is common, starvation is rampant, armed bands are roaming the land, killing, murdering and pillaging at will, with impunity.
There have been political advertisements on television blaming the President for not ‘doing something’ about Darfur. No one has an idea of what this ‘something’ is, but the general feeling in the intellectual community that it is the fault of the United States that Darfur is starving, because we should have intervened, and ‘stop the killing.’
This is the advicee of the historically challenged, those who have no concept of history and war. The thought of putting the United States army between two armed mobs, and trying to get them to stop killing themselves and each other is foolish. It is a sure recipe for disaster, OUR disaster, on top of Darfur’s disaster. There is NOTHING anyone can do in Darfur…besides provide what food aid that is possible. The only people who can help Darfur is Africans, themselves. We cannot do anything. We have ‘moved on’ and chosen not to intervene.
Does that make us selfish? Would it have been better for us to send in our troops, have soldiers die, and pull them out, suffering a political and military defeat, and the loss of brave men who needn’t have died, just so we can feel better about ourselves? Many would say yes, as self-sacrifice is a virtue, and selfishness is a sin. I would say no, as self-sacrifice without a value gained is the greater sin.
The same principle extends to our adventure in Iraq, as well as the other foreign policy initiatives of President Bush. We went into Iraq for our own reasons; to strategically remove a haven for terrorists, remove a brutal dictator who has twice attacked his neighbors and threatened the oil fields of Saudi Arabia and Iran, and hopefully to establish a stable, Democratic/Capitalistic country in the Middle East. In fact, though, as often happens, our efforts have been selfish, they are also benefiting the Iraqi people. This benefit is NOT because of a need on our part to give charity to the Iraqi people, but because establishing Democracy in Iraq is to our benefit; it is far more likely that a Democratic Iraq will be a strategic partner of the United States than if we installed another dictator, who could turn into another Saddam Hussein.
We are not obligated to be the source of charity for the world, simply because we have used the benefits of our resources and our minds wisely, while others have squandered their resources and minds foolishly. For the same people to demand that we ‘do something’ about Darfur, where we have no strategic interests whatsoever, and yet condemn us for ‘doing something’ about Iraq, where we do have strategic interests, is to make obvious that those who are clamoring for us to squander our resources in a futile venture have, as their ultimate goal, whether they know it or not, our death. Their cry is the cry of any looter, who suggests that ‘the rich can afford it.’ The assumption is that we have resources to throw away, that we will not miss those resources, even if and when they wind up in the pockets of some strongman instead of those for whom they were intended, while resources spent to ensure the safety and security of our nation are, in fact, wasted resources, and should not be spent. The fallacy of this argument should be obvious to anyone who thinks, clearly, without allowing their ‘feelings’ to override their consciousness. Feelings are important, but one must balance ones feelings with what one has gained from their experience and reason. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. Charity is a not moral duty and a primary virtue.