The Selfishness Debate: Ayn Rand vs the Dalai Lama

Daniel J. Mitchell
Posted: Apr 27, 2012 12:01 AM

I’m in Monaco for the 10th forum of the Convention of Independent Financial Advisors, a Swiss-based NGO that focuses on promoting an ethical and productive environment for private investment. I moderated a couple of panels on interesting topics, including the European fiscal crisis.

But I want to focus on the comments of another speaker, Monsieur Matthieu

Ricard, a French-born Buddhist monk. As you can see from his Wikipedia entry, he’s a very impressive individual. In addition to his other accomplishments, he serves as the French translator for the Dalai Lama.

During one of the dinners, we got into a fascinating conversation about the Buddhist concept of altruism (or at least one strain of that tradition) and Ayn Rand’s concept of selfishness, both as general ideas and as they relate to happiness.

At the risk of sounding un-libertarian, I’m siding with the monk.

Even though I’m a big fan of Ayn Rand and periodically give away copies of Atlas Shrugged to unwary young people, I’ve always been puzzled by the Randian hostility to altruism.

Yes, coercive altruism is wrong. Indeed, it’s not even altruism, particularly if you think (like Michael Gerson or Barack Obama) it’s noble or selfless to forcibly give away other people’s money.

But Rand seemed to think (and some Randians definitely think) that voluntary acts of charity and compassion are somehow wrong. In some sense, these folks take an ultra-homo economicus view that people are relentless utility maximizers based on self interest.

If this is a correct interpretation of Randianism (perhaps I should say Objectivism?), then I think it is inadequate. Yes, people want money, and almost everybody would like more money, but I’m guessing that it is non-monetary things that make people happiest.

I don’t want to sound too warm and fuzzy and ruin my image, but aren’t children, friends, family, and love the things that make the world go ’round for most of us? Yes, we also value achievement, but even that can be unrelated to pecuniary considerations.

These are amateur ramblings on my part, and I’ve probably done a poor job of describing the views of Randians and Monsieur Ricard. Moreover, I’m sure that very intelligent people have examined this issue in a much more sophisticated fashion.

For a fiscal policy wonk like me, though, this conference and this encounter forced me to give some thought to how you can be a big fan of Ayn Rand while also feeling good about holding open doors for little old ladies.