When Ayn Rand Collected Social Security & Medicare, After Years of Opposing Benefit Programs


Image via YouTube, 1959 interview with Mike Wallace

A robust social safety net can benefit both the individuals in a society and the society itself. Free of the fear of total impoverishment and able to meet their basic needs, people have a better opportunity to pursue long-term goals, to invent, create, and innovate. Of course, there are many who believe otherwise. And there are some, including the acolytes of Ayn Rand, who believe as Rand did: that those who rely on social systems are---to use her ugly term---“parasites,” and those who amass large amounts of private wealth are heroic supermen.

Rand disciple Alan Greenspan, for example, initiated the era of “Reaganomics” in the early 1980s by engineering “an increase in the most regressive tax on the poor and middle class,” writes Gary Weiss, “the Social Security payroll tax—combined with a cut in benefits.” For Greenspan, “this was no contradiction. Social Security was a system of altruism at its worst. Its beneficiaries were looters. Raising their taxes and cutting their benefits was no loss to society.”

One problem with Rand’s reasoning is this: whether “parasite” or titan of industry, none of us is anything more than human, subject to the same kinds of cruel twists of fate, the same existential uncertainty, the same illness and disease. Suffering may be unequally distributed to a great degree by human agen you, but nature and circumstance often have a way of evening the odds. Rand herself experienced such a leveling effect in her retirement. After undergoing surgery in 1974 for lung cancer caused by her heavy smoking, she found herself in straitened circumstances.

Two years later, she was paired with social worker Evva Pryor, who gave an interview in 1998 about their relationship. “Rarely have I respected someone as much as I did Ayn Rand,” said Pryor. When asked about their philosophical disagreements, she replied, “My background was social work. That should tell you all you need to know about our differences.” Pryor was tasked with persuading Rand to accept Social Security and Medicare to help with mounting medical expenses.

I had read enough to know that she despised government interference, and that she felt that people should and could live independently. She was coming to a point in her life where she was going to receive the very thing she didn’t like.... For me to do my job, she had to recognize that there were exceptions to her theory.... She had to see that there was such a thing as greed in this world.... She could be totally wiped out by medical bills if she didn’t watch it. Since she had worked her entire life and had paid into Social Security, she had a right to it. She didn’t feel that an individual should take help.

Finally, Rand relented. “Whether she agreed or not is not the issue,” said Pryor, “She saw the necessity for both her and [her husband] Frank.” Or as Weiss puts it, “Reality had intruded upon her ideological pipedreams.” That's one way of interpreting the contradiction: that Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, “has no practical purpose except to promote the economic interests of the people bankrolling it"---the sole function of her thought is to justify wealth, explain away poverty, and normalize the sort of Hobbesian war of all against all Rand saw as a societal ideal.

Rand taught “there is no such thing as the public interest,” that programs like Social Security and Medicare steal from “creators” and illegitimately redistribute their wealth. This was a "sublimely enticing argument for wealthy businessmen who had no interest whatever in the public interest.... Yet the taxpayers of America paid Rand's and Frank O'Connor's medical expenses." Randians have offered many convoluted explanations for what her critics see as sheer hypocrisy. We may or may not find them persuasive.

In the simplest terms, Rand discovered at the end of her life that she was only human and in need of help. Rather than starve or drop dead—as she would have let so many others do—she took the help on offer. Rand died in 1982, as her admirer Alan Greenspan had begun putting her ideas into practice in Reagan’s administration, making sure, writes Weiss, that the system was “more favorable to the creators and entrepreneurs who were more valuable to society," in his Randian estimation, "than people lower down the ladder of success.” After well over three decades of such policies, we can draw our own conclusions about the results.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Economics is for Everyone!, Explained in a New RSA Animated Video

It has been a while, but RSA has returned with another one of their whiteboard animated videos. During the early days of YouTube, they broke some aesthetic ground by animating Slavoj Zizek on the Surprising Ethical Implications of Charitable Giving; Barbara Ehrenreich (author of Nickel and Dimed) on The Perils of Positive PsychologyDaniel Pink on The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo on The Secret Powers of Time. Now, they're back with the influential Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang explaining "why every single person can and SHOULD get their head around basic economics." Here, Chang "pulls back the curtain on the often mystifying language of derivatives and quantitative easing, and explains how easily economic myths and assumptions become gospel," helping you to "arm yourself with some facts" and take part in "discussions about the fundamentals that underpin our day-to-day lives." If you want to get up to speed on economics, some of the resources below will undoubtedly give you a hand.

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The Art Market Demystified in Four Short Documentaries

Spend an hour or two at MoMA, Tate Modern, or some other world class museum and inevitably you’’ll overhear some variation of “my seven-year-old could paint that.”

Mayhaps, Madam, but how much would it fetch at auction?

As a new documentary series, the Art Market (in Four Parts), makes clear, the monetary value of art is tricky to assign.

There are exceptions, of course, such as in the irresistible Picasso anecdote cited in the trailer, above.

Usually however, even the experts must resort to an educated guess, based on a number of factors, none of which can tell the whole story.

As journalist and former director of New York’s White Columns gallery, Josh Baer, points out in the series’ first episode below, even art market indices are an unreliable tool for assessing worth. A portrait of actress Elizabeth Taylor by Andy Warhol failed to attract a single bid at auction, though artnet Price Database reported sales of between $27 million and $31.5 million for other “Liz” paintings by the same artist.

I’d have thought a signature as famous as Warhol’s would confer the same sort of insta-worth Picasso claimed his John Hancock did.

The unpredictability of final sales figures has led auction houses to issue guarantees in return for a split of the profits, a practice Sotheby’s North and South America chairman, Lisa Dennison, likens to an insurance policy for the seller.

With the exception of the ill-fated Warhol’s great big goose egg, the numbers batted around by the series’ influential talking heads are pretty staggering. Snappy editing also lends a sense of art world glamour, though gallerist Michele Maccarone betrays a certain weariness that may come closer to the true energy at the epicenter of the scene.

As for me, I couldn’t help thinking back to my days as a receptionist in a commercial gallery on Chicago’s tourist friendly Magnificent Mile. I was contemptuous of most of the stuff on our walls, which ran heavily to pastel garden parties and harlequins posed in front of recognizable landmarks. One day, a couple who’d wandered in on impulse dropped a ridiculous sum on a florid beach scene, complete with shimmering rainbows. Rich they may have been, but their utter lack of taste was appalling, at least until the wife excitedly confided that the painting's setting reminded them of their long ago Hawaiian honeymoon. That clarified a lot for me as to art’s true value. I hope that the couple is still alive and enjoying the most for their money’s worth, every single day.

The Art Market’s other three parts, "Galleries," "Patrons," and "Art Fairs," will be released weekly through mid-June. And we'll try to add them to this post, as they roll out.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She wrote about her brief stint as a gallery receptionist in her third book, Job Hopper: The Checkered Career of a Down-Market Dilettante. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Stephen Hawking Wonders Whether Capitalism or Artificial Intelligence Will Doom the Human Race

hawking capitalism future

Creative Commons image via NASA

It shouldn't be especially controversial to point out that we live in a pivotal time in human history—that the actions we collectively take (or that plutocrats and technocrats take) will determine the future of the human species---or whether we even have a future in the coming centuries. The threats posed by climate change and war are exacerbated and accelerated by rapidly worsening economic inequality. Exponential advances in technology threaten to eclipse our ability to control machines rather than be controlled, or stamped out, by them.

It’s also the case that our most well-regarded scientists and technological innovators have not remained silent in the face of these crises. Physicist Stephen Hawking has issued some dire warnings lately when it comes to humanity's future. Several years ago, he predicted that "our only chance of long term survival" may be to "spread out into space," a la Interstellar. In addition to the worsening climate crisis, the rise of artificial intelligence concerns Hawking. Along with Bill Gates and Elon Musk, he has warned of what futurist Ray Kurzweil has called "the singularity," the point at which machine intelligence surpasses our own.

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Where Kurzweil has seen this event through an optimistic, New Age lens, Hawking's view seems more in line with dystopian sci-fi visions of robot apocalypse. "Success in AI would be the biggest event in human history," he wrote in The Independent last year, "Unfortunately it might also be the last." Given the design of autonomous weapons systems and, as he told the BBC, the fact that "Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete and would be superseded," the prospect looks chilling, but it isn't inevitable.

Our tech isn't actively out to get us. "The real risk with AI isn't malice but competence," Hawking clarified, in a fascinating Reddit "Ask Me Anything" session last month. Due to the physicist's physical limitations, readers posted questions and voted on their favorites. From these, Hawking elected the "ones he feels he can give answers to." In response to a top-rated question about the so-called "Terminator Conversation," he wrote, "A superintelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren't aligned with ours, we're in trouble."

This problem of misaligned goals is not of course limited to our relationship with machines. Our precarious economic relationships with each other pose a separate threat, especially in the face of massive job loss due to future automation. We'd like to imagine a future where technology frees us of toil and want, the kind of society Buckminster Fuller sought to create. But the truth is that wealth and income inequality, at their highest levels in the U.S. since at least the Gilded Age, may determine a very different path---one we might think of in terms of "The Elysium Conversation." Asked in the same AMA Reddit session, "Do you foresee a world where people work less because so much work is automated? Do you think people will always either find work or manufacture more work to be done?," Hawking elaborated,

If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.

For decades after the Cold War, capitalism had the status of an unquestionably sacred doctrine---the end of history and the best of all possible worlds. Now, not only has Hawking identified its excesses as drivers of human decline, but so have other decidedly non-Marxist figures like Bill Gates, who in a recent Atlantic interview described the private sector as "in general inept" and unable to address the climate crisis because of its focus on short-term gains and maximal profits. "There's no fortune to be made," he said, from dealing with some of the biggest threats to our survival. But if we don't deal with them, the losses are incalculable.

via Huff Po

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Bertrand Russell & Buckminster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More


Why must we all work long hours to earn the right to live? Why must only the wealthy have access to leisure, aesthetic pleasure, self-actualization...? Everyone seems to have an answer, according to their political or theological bent. One economic bogeyman, so-called “trickle-down” economics, or “Reaganomics,” actually predates our 40th president by a few hundred years at least. The notion that we must better ourselves—or simply survive—by toiling to increase the wealth and property of already wealthy men was perhaps first comprehensively articulated in the 18th-century doctrine of “improvement.” In order to justify privatizing common land and forcing the peasantry into jobbing for them, English landlords attempted to show in treatise after treatise that 1) the peasants were lazy, immoral, and unproductive, and 2) they were better off working for others. As a corollary, most argued that landowners should be given the utmost social and political privilege so that their largesse could benefit everyone.

This scheme necessitated a complete redefinition of what it meant to work. In his study, The English Village Community and the Enclosure Movements, historian W.E. Tate quotes from several of the “improvement” treatises, many written by Puritans who argued that “the poor are of two classes, the industrious poor who are content to work for their betters, and the idle poor who prefer to work for themselves.” Tate’s summation perfectly articulates the early modern redefinition of “work” as the creation of profit for owners. Such work is virtuous, “industrious,” and leads to contentment. Other kinds of work, leisurely, domestic, pleasurable, subsistence, or otherwise, qualifies—in an Orwellian turn of phrase—as “idleness.” (We hear echoes of this rhetoric in the language of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.) It was this language, and its legal and social repercussions, that Max Weber later documented in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Karl Marx reacted to in Das Capital, and feminists have shown to be a consolidation of patriarchal power and further exclusion of women from economic participation.

Along with Marx, various others have raised significant objections to Protestant, capitalist definitions of work, including Thomas Paine, the Fabians, agrarians, and anarchists. In the twentieth century, we can add two significant names to an already distinguished list of dissenters: Buckminster Fuller and Bertrand Russell. Both challenged the notion that we must have wage-earning jobs in order to live, and that we are not entitled to indulge our passions and interests unless we do so for monetary profit or have independent wealth. In New York Times column on Russell's 1932 essay "In Praise of Idleness," Gary Gutting writes, “For most of us, a paying job is still utterly essential — as masses of unemployed people know all too well. But in our economic system, most of us inevitably see our work as a means to something else: it makes a living, but it doesn’t make a life.”

In far too many cases in fact, the work we must do to survive robs us of the ability to live by ruining our health, consuming all our precious time, and degrading our environment. In his essay, Russell argued that “there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what has always been preached.” His “arguments for laziness,” as he called them, begin with definitions of what we mean by “work,” which might be characterized as the difference between labor and management:

What is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.

Russell further divides the second category into “those who give orders” and “those who give advice as to what orders should be given.” This latter kind of work, he says, “is called politics,” and requires no real “knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given,” but only the ability to manipulate: “the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.” Russell then discusses a “third class of men" at the top, "more respected than either of the classes of the workers”—the landowners, who “are able to make others pay for the privilege of being allowed to exist and to work.” The idleness of landowners, he writes, “is only rendered possible by the industry of others. Indeed their desire for comfortable idleness is historically the source of the whole gospel of work. The last thing they have ever wished is that others should follow their example.”

The “gospel of work” Russell outlines is, he writes, “the morality of the Slave State,” and the kinds of murderous toil that developed under its rule—actual chattel slavery, fifteen hour workdays in abominable conditions, child labor—has been “disastrous.” Work looks very different today than it did even in Russell's time, but even in modernity, when labor movements have managed to gather some increasingly precarious amount of social security and leisure time for working people, the amount of work forced upon the majority of us is unnecessary for human thriving and in fact counter to it---the result of a still-successful capitalist propaganda campaign: if we aren’t laboring for wages to increase the profits of others, the logic still dictates, we will fall to sloth and vice and fail to earn our keep. “Satan finds some mischief for idle hands to do,” goes the Protestant proverb Russell quotes at the beginning of his essay. On the contrary, he concludes,

…in a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity.

The less we are forced to labor, the more we can do good work in our idleness, and we can all labor less, Russell argues, because “modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all” instead of “overwork for some and starvation for others.”

A few decades later, visionary architect, inventor, and theorist Buckminster Fuller would make exactly the same argument, in similar terms, against the “specious notion that everybody has to earn a living.” Fuller articulated his ideas on work and non-work throughout his long career. He put them most succinctly in a 1970 New York magazine "Environmental Teach-In":

It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest…. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist.

Many people are paid very little to do backbreaking labor; many others paid quite a lot to do very little. The creation of surplus jobs leads to redundancy, inefficiency, and the bureaucratic waste we hear so many politicians rail against: “we have inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors”---all to satisfy a dubious moral imperative and to make a small number of rich people even richer.

What should we do instead? We should continue our education, and do what we please, Fuller argues: “The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.” We should all, in other words, work for ourselves, performing the kind of labor we deem necessary for our quality of life and our social arrangements, rather than the kinds of labor dictated to us by governments, landowners, and corporate executives. And we can all do so, Fuller thought, and all flourish similarly. Fuller called the technological and evolutionary advancement that enables us to do more with less "euphemeralization." In Critical Path, a visionary work on human development, he claimed "It is now possible to give every man, woman and child on Earth a standard of living comparable to that of a modern-day billionaire."

Sound utopian? Perhaps. But Fuller's far-reaching path out of reliance on fossil fuels and into a sustainable future has never been tried, for some depressingly obvious reasons and some less obvious. Neither Russell nor Fuller argued for the abolition—or inevitable self-destruction—of capitalism and the rise of a workers' paradise. (Russell gave up his early enthusiasm for communism.) Neither does Gary Gutting, a philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame, who in his New York Times commentary on Russell asserts that “Capitalism, with its devotion to profit, is not in itself evil.” Most Marxists on the other hand would argue that devotion to profit can never be benign. But there are many middle ways between state communism and our current religious devotion to supply-side capitalism, such as robust democratic socialism or a basic income guarantee. In any case, what most dissenters against modern notions of work share in common is the conviction that education should produce critical thinkers and self-directed individuals, and not, as Gutting puts it, “be primarily for training workers or consumers”—and that doing work we love for the sake of our own personal fulfillment should not be the exclusive preserve of a propertied leisure class.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

MIT’s Introduction to Poker Theory: A Free Online Course

If you google my name, spelled in the unconventional way that I spell it, the first search results won't having anything to do with me. They'll reference another Dan Colman who, in the past year, has made a good chunk of change playing poker -- including winning $15.3 million in one tournament alone. He apparently did it all without availing himself of MIT's course -- Poker Theory and Analytics -- taught by Kevin Desmond, a graduate student in MIT's Sloan School of Management. Desmond has competed at the top levels of the poker world and worked as a Morgan Stanley analyst, and he contends that being successful in both realms requires "balancing expected returns against associated risks and," ... and "the key to success is self-discipline."

According to MIT NewsPoker Theory and Analytics introduced students to poker strategy, psychology, and decision-making in eleven lectures." Along with giving students the chance to play endless rounds of poker, the class featured guest speakers -- "Bill Chen, a professional player best known for his appearances on the Game Show Network’s High Stakes Poker television show, Matt Hawrilenko, a Princeton graduate who won more than $1 million at the World Series of Poker in 2009, and Aaron Brown, chief risk manager at AQR Capital Management." And it culminated with a live tournament.

You can access all of the lectures for the Poker Theory and Analytics course on YouTube, iTunes or Archive.org. (You can watch the complete playlist of lectures above.) And if you click here, you can get the syllabuslectures notes, assignments, poker software, and more.

Poker Theory and Analytics  will be added to our ever-growing collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities, in both the Business and Economics sections.

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Animated Introductions to Three Sociologists: Durkheim, Weber & Adorno

Is sociology an art or a science? Is it philosophy? Social psychology? Economics and political theory? Surveying the great sociologists since the mid-19th century, one would have to answer "yes" to all of these questions. Sociologists like Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Theodor Adorno conducted serious scholarly and social-scientific analyses, and wrote highly speculative theory. Though it may seem like we're all sociologists now, making critical judgments about large groups of people, the sociologists who created and carried on the discipline generally did so with sound evidence and well-reasoned argument. Unlike so much current knee-jerk commentary, even when they're wrong they're still well worth reading.

Having already surveyed Marx in his series on Euro-American political philosophers, School of Life founder Alain de Botton now tackles the other three illustrious names on the list above, starting with Durkheim at the top, then Weber above, and Adorno below. The first two figures were contemporaries of Marx, the third a later interpreter. Like that bearded German scourge of capitalism, these three—in more measured or pessimistic ways—levied critiques against the dominant economic system. Durkheim took on the problem of suicide, Weber the anxious religious underpinnings of capitalist ideology, and Adorno the consumer culture of instant gratification.

That's so far, at least, as de Botton's very cursory introductions get us. As with his other series, this one more or less ropes the thinkers represented here into the School of Life's program of promoting a very particular, middle class view of happiness. And, as with the other series, the thinkers surveyed here all seem to more or less agree with de Botton's own views. Perhaps others who most certainly could have been included, like W.E.B. Dubois, Jane Addams, or Hannah Arendt, would offer some very different perspectives.

De Botton again makes his points with pithy generalizations, numbered lists, and quirky, cut-out animations, breezily reducing lifetimes of work to a few observations and moral lessons. I doubt Adorno would approach these less-than-rigorous methods charitably, but those new to the field of sociology or the work of its practitioners will find here some tantalizing ideas that will hopefully inspire them to dig deeper, and to perhaps improve their own sociological diagnoses.

Note: For those interested, Yale has a free open course on Sociology called "Foundations of Modern Social Theory," which covers most of the figures listed above. You can always find it in our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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