Fountain Headache

You may know Ayn Rand for her lugubrious, stultifying novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and her book of essays (with co-author Nathaniel Branden) The Virtue of Selfishness, which promulgated her “Objectivist” philosophy of personal greed as social progress. But you may not know the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), which was established in Irvine in 1985. The group's website,, says ARI was formed to spearhead a “cultural renaissance that will reverse the anti-reason, anti-capitalist trends in today's culture.”

But since the end of the Cold War and the concurrent demise of the global-communist conspiracy, ARI and its Randian followers have been struggling for a new bugaboo to replace socialism as the chief enemy of “reason, rational self-interest, individual rights and free-market capitalism.” Since 9/11, not surprisingly, ARI has directed most of its wrath against “Islamo-fascism.”

But now, ARI has found an even more dangerous force in the world: poor people who die in great numbers during extreme weather events.

On Dec. 30, ARI sent out an unsolicited opinion piece on the Indian Ocean tsunami which killed more than 250,000 people in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India four days earlier. Entitled “U.S. Should Not Help Tsunami Victims,” the article stated that while private citizens had every right to donate cash, government-financed aid amounted to theft.

Later, ARI used the tsunami to attack another enemy: environmentalists. It said nature-lovers were “dead wrong” in their claims that technology causes environmental problems. “Far from being the cause of such tragedies, science, technology and industry provide the only means of safeguarding human lives against natural disasters,” ARI argued. The release went on to state that “relatively undeveloped Caribbean islands . . . suffer far worse devastation and loss of life from the same hurricanes that hammer Florida year after year” because the U.S. enjoys “the use of satellites, radar and communication technology” to “warn people well in advance of danger.”

Apparently, the Randians aren't above issuing an apology when they're wrong. On Jan. 7, ARI issued a follow-up press release entitled “Clarification of ARI's Position on Government Help to Tsunami Victims.”

ARI called its previous release “inappropriate” and said it “did not accurately convey the Institute's position.” What is ARI's actual position? “The ugly hand of altruism—the moral view that need entitles a person to the values of others, whose corresponding duty is to sacrifice their values for that person's sake—did show itself in the petulant demands of U.N. and other officials that 'stingy' countries must give more.”

Somewhere—that would be her fountainhead-shaped grave—Ayn Rand groaned, not at her followers' stunning lack of taste, but at their cowardly compromise.

Yet there's nothing altruistic about U.S. government aid to tsunami victims. As exemplified by Colin Powell's high-profile tour of the devastation—not to mention the constant footage of U.S. soldiers distributing food and water—a major benefit of our assistance is positive public relations for an America widely viewed as preoccupied with blowing shit up in Iraq.

Also implied in ARI's attack on the victims of the recent tsunami is the notion that hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved if only those nations had invested in the same type of early-warning system as the U.S. But as many as 160,000 Indonesians—by far the lion's share of the victims—died in the tsunami within mere minutes of the wave's formation. Because many of those people lived in remote villages so close to the massive earthquake's epicenter, it's unclear whether a warning system would have done much good. Secondly, at least some of the Indonesians who did survive lived in technology-free societies with an oral tradition that taught them to run for the hills when the ocean recedes.

But there's an even more fundamental problem with ARI's position, especially if you take Ayn Rand and her pro-free market philosophy seriously. The U.S.-run Pacific Tsunami Warning Center—like the National Earthquake Information Center and the National Oceanographic Service, which warns against hurricanes—isn't a product of free-market capitalism. In fact, it was created through taxpayer-funded government intervention—what ARI would call theft. So if you want to blame something for the most destructive wall of water in recent memory, don't blame nature. Blame capitalist Indonesia, Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka for failing to follow the socialist example of the capitalist U.S.A. by investing in a taxpayer-funded tsunami warning system.

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