Smile Politely

Irrational individualism

Leaving work the other day, I walked past a $90,000 sports car — a car that seemed wholly out of place given where I work. It’s no Fortune 500 company, and it’s not a governor’s mansion or high-priced resort either.

But the car was in the “visitor” parking, which somehow made a bit more sense.

While the car caught my eye initially for seeming out of place, the choice of personalized license plate was even more jolting — an homage to the author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead

The combination of the vehicle and the message on the license plate tell us an awful lot about the owner.

Perhaps the owner is from out of town. So maybe the car seems more ordinary or appropriate in the area where he or she normally does business. And perhaps the owner makes a great deal of money doing whatever it is that he does for a living. Perhaps he is an innovator in some burgeoning field, or a particularly successful entrepreneur. Maybe the owner finally hit the Powerball, for all we know.

But I’m guessing not. And that’s based on the implications provided by his choice in personalized plate messaging (for which Secretary of State Jesse White no doubt thanks them, since personalized plates on a newly purchased vehicle in the state of Illinois cost a total of $288).

Let me back up for a moment and make something very clear — I have no problem with the car this person has chosen to drive. I’ve been a “car guy” since I was driven home from the hospital. It looks like it might be a whole lot of fun to drive. So I hold no grudge against the owner for his choice in automobile.

The problem lies in the notion of there being anything close to a “sef-made man” anymore, which one has to presume is the purpose or philosophy behind his choice of “vanity plate” (a telling term, in this case).

There are people in this world who work and try very hard, and I wouldn’t dare suggest otherwise. I believe that I have had to work hard in some ways, but could I have done more? Certainly. And had I done so, would I be more or less successful than I currently am? I can’t say. But that’s an honest assessment of where I’ve been, and where I am.

For many who espouse some diluted version of “rational egoism,” claiming that philosophy serves merely as a justification for some combination of greed, selfishness, and an unwillingness to offer anything to anyone else, rather than an accurate assessment of individual achievement and resolve.

People who have truly worked hard for their successes do not feel the need to remind everyone under the sun how far they’ve come, how much they’ve done, and how they did it all by themselves. A content, successful individual exhibits his achievement by doing the same sorts of things that many of us strive to do: care for friends and family, provide for those around us, and continue working toward or maintaining what we have earned.

Conversely, embittered, entitled individuals feel some need to incessantly flaunt or flog their successes and emphasize them as being solely the product of the individual’s efforts, persistence, and resolve. To proclaim, exclaim, that they themselves are the only reason for such success and glory, without any assistance or influence from outside sources.

And so, they justify to themselves their belief that they should assist no one — that everyone is an island unto themselves.

If we’re to take the terms at their actual meaning, though, boasting about one’s success would seem to be in direct conflict with being “rational” — after all, boasting about our success/possessions/wealth makes us a more likely target for jealousy, envy, even robbery.

There’s very little “rational” about that. Just because you have a box full of diamonds in your backpack doesn’t mean it’s wise to share that information with everyone on the bus, right?
Back to our Rand-loving subject — the car is, of course, a car. Engine, four wheels, the basic functions of transportation. But that is where the “rational” nature of the purchase ends. It’s far from rational to purchase a $90,000 automobile when a $20,000 one will meet the same requirements — getting from point A to point B under its own power. It’s also far from rational to purchase a vehicle with little space for passengers or cargo, since there are plenty of cars to choose from that offer those capabilities. In this case, our subject’s “rational egoism” is far from being rational, or even making sense.

Understand, then, that there is a fairly wide chasm between those who work hard (as many people do), and those who believe that their efforts somehow place them above the others, in a higher class or a position of superiority: “Obviously you haven’t worked as hard as me, because you have not achieved as I have.”

“Randians,” “Randites,” “Rational Egoists” — call them what you will. Too often nowadays, theirs is a world that values nothing but greed, sheathed in a thin veil of false bootstrap mentality and an inflated sense of achievement. It’s the delusion that’s most frustrating: this grandiose vision that some have of themselves as heroes striding about in a world made just for them, by them, and shared with no one. It has no basis in the reality of existence.

Humans, and mammals more generally, are social creatures. We form and shape and build and maintain communities and tribes, clubs and towns, in order to gain from the collective strengths of the group. No one man or woman can do it all. Being a plumber does not make you a qualified neurosurgeon. So the notion of “radical individualism” is absurd in the basic context of human existence. So too is the notion of “rational egoism” or “rational selfishness,” since acting only in one’s own interest serves to alienate others, engenders resentment from them, and makes them reticent to offer anything that may be of benefit or necessity.

Further still, the concept of “rational selfishness” is frequently invoked as a justification for plain old greed, without regard to the costs or consequences. While that may not have been the author’s (Rand) intent, it is easily contorted to fit a modern view equivalent to “s/he who has the most toys when they die, wins.”

Rand herself made use of social programs and assistance towards the end of her life, a fact that her most ardent modern acolytes would shudder to think. And yet, the author whom these anti-tax, anti-assistance, anti-community “rugged individualists” look to for the nullification of their own moral compass was herself something slightly less than a hero: she was a human, a condition that none of us are likely to shake, no matter how many bootstraps we wrangle.

That returns us to our aforementioned car owner. I have no doubt that he is successful. Nor do I doubt that he probably has some lame job and a bad boss and some lousy coworkers, like most of us have. But those shared experiences nullify the notion that he has somehow “gone it alone” and “achieved in the face of adversity.” Instead, those similarities only serve to reinforce the fact that none of us is an island, nor can we be. We may really want to fly solo sometimes, but when the time comes to land back at the runway of reality, it takes a crew to make sure you don’t crash.

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