Saturday, November 1, 2008

Obama takes a jab at Rand

If you listened to one of Obama's rally speeches yesterday, you may have heard the phrase "I don't know when they decided that selfishness was a virtue...". To most, this little phrase would not strike them as anything terribly significant. But to a student of capitalism, it was an obvious burn.

Obama has two masters degrees. He chooses his words carefully. He is, no doubt, familiar with the work and writings of Ayn Rand. Rand was a champion of capitalism and authored many books, fiction and non-fiction. One of them elaborated specifically on a fundamental principal of capitalism: "The Virtue of Selfishness".

The burn is perhaps well deserved. Capitalists have done such a lousy job of communicating and selling their ideas that most people are totally unaware of the work of one of capitalism's greatest advocates. They have a vague idea of what capitalism means...sort of, but few can define it with any real clarity.

Ayn Rand did a good job of illustrating capitalist principals, but she did so in a language, tone and manner that was largely directed at academia. Her non-fiction was quite dry and employed vocabulary the average working stiff would probably not be familiar with. Her signature novel "Atlas Shrugged" was very lengthy and included a several hundred page monologue that beat the reader over the head with the point of the book, if they took the time to endure it. She also incorporated capitalism into her brand name philosophy: Objectivism, which has unfortunately evolved into a kind of cult or religion of its own, which is ironic, since she was staunchly opposed to religion. That was another error I think. She suggested that capitalists must all be atheists. Marketing to a population that is over 95% theist and telling them that to truly enjoy your product they need to abandon their religion, is a non-starter. The only principals we need to agree on are that people should be free to pursue voluntary associations and mutually agreed upon transactions in the absence of force, deception or intimidation. That no man has a right to the time, resources and/or talents of another, and that society is a convenience item, created by and for individuals to make use of when and if they so desire. It is not a super-entity to be worshiped and served.

The point here is not to dog Ayn Rand, but to emphasize that the battlefield of ideas is not in the halls of academia, but on the streets of Anytown. It's in the bowling alleys, the pizza joints, the laundramats and the cafeterias. The left realized that very early on. They have always relied on a base of disgruntled working class people who either don't have the time to leisurely pursue scholastic material or don't have access to it. They don't distribute position papers, they spotlight their constituents' lack of wealth, focus blame on their opponents and promise to fix it.

The counter-measure is to take the principals of capitalism and clearly communicate and illustrate them in a language, manner and media that everyone can understand. One of the earliest examples of this is the Ant and the Grasshopper parable. It is probably more widely known than anything Rand ever wrote. It can be read or told in less than 30 minutes, and it clearly illustrates the underlying principal.

The challenge to today's generation of capitalism's advocates: Spot opportunities to illustrate a principal. Speak to your audience, not at them. Don't try to sell the whole package in one sitting. Support one underlying idea at a time. Good ideas resonate. They just need a little reinforcement. Briefly, but effectively reinforcing a single point to a single person can have a lasting ripple effect. The truth is your friend. Be a good friend in return.

No comments: