Do we exalt the John Galts and Howard Roarks among us or despise them? Do we admire the ultimate, self-centered and selfish capitalists or the selfless, self-sacrificing altruists?
Oh sure there are the Martin Luther King, Jr.s and Mahatma Gandhis and Nelson Mandelas and Aung Sun Suu Kyis we like to point to as icons and worthy role models for our children. But look deeply and we find that we are obsessed with the wealthy. And who are the wealthy? Why do we let the Robert Rubins, Sandy Weills, Jakc Welchs, Jamie Dimons and their Wall St. brethren keep their millions? Because we consider that right and their right.
Let alone the hedge fund people whose entire purpose is to become billionaires.
How many people explicitly make life choices that will lead to a life of service -> not be a charlatan like Mother Teresa but just helping the underprivileged without trying to 'achieve' greatness by so doing. So Lance Armstrong and Greg Mortensen and the Evangelical Christian blowhards such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell don't count. All the Indian Hindu godmen -- who are too numerous to make a comprehensive list -- are in it to become gods themselves. I hope nobody thinks for a moment that a Sai Baba or Ravi Shankar or Ram dev or the others are in it to do 'service.'
Think of the obsessive listing of the wealthy in the media -> what does that show except that We The People are obsessed with wealth and the wealthy. Think of the self-promotional crazy stunts of the Hollywood celebrities who are clearly not in the business of doing charity by any stretch of the imagination.
Coming down from these Olympian levels to levels of ordinary mortals like you and me, what motivates the average successful individual?
Take a doctor. There are hundreds of thousands if not millions of doctors in the world. Who goes to the top of that pyramid? There are only a few doctors who reach the top of their chosen profession of medicine - they are the top dogs, the chairmen of depts. at academic medical centers, the consultants to the big pharma companies, the rock stars of the various medical disciplines like cancer or heart or brain surgery, the doctors who have built enough of a name for themselves that the average public has heard of them. These are the doctors who manage to make in excess of a million dollars in the U.S.
Take teachers. There are thousands and hundreds of thousands of them. But only a few reach the top of this mountain. The teachers who are professors at the Ivy League universities, who write books, or appear on TV, or go on the lecture circuit, perhaps serve in the govt. for a while, head think tanks -> think Condolezza Rice and Elizabeth Warren or Michael Sandel and Niall Ferguson.
Take sportspersons. Is it even POSSIBLE to think of top sportspersons separately from their multi-million endorsement deals? Who is the exception? Not Tiger Woods. Neither Roger Federer nor Michael Schumacher. And surely not David Beckham. You can add any famous footballer, or basketball player or tennis player or baseball player or Formula One driver or boxer. They do it for the money.
The 'closest' way to be a follower of the Dr. Kings and Gandhis would be to enter public service. How many leaders on the world stage can you name who are in public service primarily to do selfless service? At worst, elected leaders of nations can turn into Hitlers. But even at their best, democratic nations have produced leaders like George W. Bush or Tony Blair. Indian democracy seems to be faithful not to a republican ideal but to some older, apparently ingrained desire to elect leaders belonging to the same family generation after generation. All democracies appear to be flawed to various degrees. And yet, these are the 'democracies.'
Nobody expects Iran, North Korea, or Cuba, or Venezuela to come up with the next Gandhi.
Leaders of nations never fail to extol the 'courage' and 'sacrifice' of the troops belonging to their nations. So Obama will say that America's fighting forces are the best and finest forces in the world and the men and women 'serving' in those forces make incredible 'sacrifices' for their country everyday. The French President will say the same about the French soldiers. The Indian Prime Minister will say the same things as well -> about bravery and courage and sacrifice. I think we all understand the lie in this and let it be. The troops are not in the military because they want to make sacrifices for their country but because of other personal factors -> may be they wanted to be fighter pilots or be at the cutting edge of technology or they come from poor families and the military seemed a nice enough career option from a financial perspective.
The Obama and Democratic doctrine in the U.S. of sturdier social safety nets and a move towards universal healthcare and greater government role in providing various services to the citizens finds favor with the citizens precisely because there are so many millions of people who are dependent on these services and safety nets. If I am a Medicare beneficiary and fight to continue to be one and want to vote and vote for the guy who'll assure me that it ain't going anywhere, then I am not doing anything altruistic, am I?
Even women appear to have realized that they will have greater power over men by 'withholding' the only currency they have -> that of sex. So from a peak of a permissive and pervasive culture of sex, we see women retreating towards some ideal of monogamy - or at at least giving importance to traditional social structures such as marriage (followed by monogamy).
Perhaps nothing exemplifies the fundamental self-centeredness and selfishness of human beings as the fact of there being such income disparities within and among nations on one planet. We have not really learned that we are one species, have we? We are still Americans and Canadians and French and British and Germans and Russians and Japanese. Oh, these are merely the rich folks of the world. The advanced, wealthy nations of the world at best have a total combined population of one billion. The rest of the global population (six billion plus) is poor.
Even within these rich countries, the poor are taken care of to varying degrees - in the Scandinavian nations, or in Japan, a sense of equity and inclusiveness exists; the poor are taken care of by the government, the old receive free medical care or pensions. In America, people are less entitled to government stuff - though there's Medicare and Medicaid, there's no national government-funded and government-run healthcare system.
But beyond these tiny islands of wealth and the even tinier islands of wealth in the Middle East, there exist these vast oceans of povery across much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Millions of people existing on the edge of starvation and death. If humans were not selfish, with all the knowledge and technology at our disposal, people in the developed nations would have pushed their governments to do more to eradicate some of the completely unnecessary deaths from easily curable diseases that is still so commonplace in so many parts of the world. Are you thinking -> "Well, why would the average American or Canadian or French citizen think about grinding poverty in Africa and India?" Well, exactly. They don't. They are too busy with their own lives.
Which explains why we see so much coverage in the media about the challenges of bringing up kids in the age of Ritalin and Facebook. We see coverage about homes that cost a million dollars and other homes that cost 50 or 100 million dollars. And cars that cost 100,000 dollars to a million dollars. We have the ridiculous state of affairs where people in the developed nations spend more on their pets than people in developing countries spend on their human babies. Which is why we have medicines for cancer that can cost 5,000 dollars per month - clearly out of reach for the billions who survive on less than a dollar a day.
Here's the contradiction people are living with consciously or unconsciously. The average middle class person in the U.S. or Europe doesn't consider himself or herself to be a 'parasite' as Ayn Rand might. So it's considered right and correct that the rich should be asked to pay their fair share of taxes to the government and the government should take care of the poor, the elderly and those who are not able to fend for themselves. At the same time, there's no law against becoming millionaires or billionaires -> becoming wealthy is mostly celebrated. Making money is mostly a glorious activity and achievement in the rich societies. So, people are in agreement with Ayn Rand when she says that the wealthy are the heroes and that free market economics is the right policy choice. But people don't agree with Rand when she considers the poor to be 'parasites.' People are ok with government helping those who have fallen on hard times. Indeed, people want the government to do more -> particularly as more and more people are becoming prone to falling and indeed falling into hard times. The veterans, the elderly, the poor, the unemployed, etc. do not consider themselves to be parasites.
The problem with this conception and formulation of a 'compassionate society' is that the compassion stops at the border. It's not clear why that should be so -- particularly in this age of the ubiquitous internet when the sufferings of anyone and everyone in the world living anywhere is instantaneously transmitted to every corner of the world by TV. Why is the suffering of the homeless kids in Florida more heart-wrenching than the suffering of the kids in Africa or Afghanistan or the suffering of the street kids in India. Why is it news if 'adult' children in the U.S. are 'moving in' with their parents because of the challenging economic environment? Are not there more challenging crises facing humans in poor countries of the world? What about the urban poor in India and China who live in very difficult circumstances -- perhaps in slums?
The average middle class person in the West earning 30,000 dollars per annum would be virtually a millionaire in poor India or Africa. But the middle class folks in the rich nations don't feel that they have a 'duty' to be compassionate towards the poor and the suffering citizens and kids throughout the world. The governments in the rich nations do not feel obliged to tax the middle class heavily and send the revenue collected to the poor nations. So the compassion of the average American or European extends to the unfortunate citizen or kid only within the boundaries of their own country.
A wonderful case of moral relativism indeed. Or simple selfishness showing in the end that people operate in their minds in the way that Ayn Rand portrayed -> though people may be ashamed to admit that in the exaggerated way in which Rand contrasts the 'heroes' and 'parasites' in her novels.