While to an extent true that the ideas stemming from Liberal Humanism – laissez-faire economics, individual rights, and free and open competition in all fields – have operated as a liberating force in the modern world, when left unchecked, practice of these ideas can result in disastrous consequences for the same people and institutions they are meant to benefit. Ayn Rand’s “The Virtue of Selfishness,” is a collection of essays in which she goes into extensive detail as to why total economic freedom is the only acceptable way of life. In contrast to this, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” presents a bleak image of Liberal Economics taken to the greatest possible extreme, damaging the world beyond recognition, and causing the Human Race to (literally) eat itself alive. This essay will use both texts to gain an understanding of the role Liberal Humanism plays in the deterioration of our society, as-well-as determine if its benefits are worth the costs.
Ayn Rand took laissez-faire economics – the idea that for a society to be truly prosperous, there should be as few restrictions and regulations as possible on that nation’s industries, and its citizens capacity to gain wealth by whatever means – to their greatest possible extreme, arguing that any attempt by the government to meddle in a person’s private economic interests is a violation of his or her’s most intimate rights. In her essay “Man’s Rights,” Rand writes:
“The right to property means that a man has the right to take the economic actions necessary to earn property, to use it and to dispose of it … Those who advocate laissez-faire capitalism are the only advocates of man’s rights. (Rand, p. 93).”
Rand is saying that economic freedom is intrinsically tied to freedom in general. The only free nations or states are the ones who employ laissez-faire capitalism to its fullest, allowing people to take whatever actions needed to acquire as much wealth as possible. Under this ideology, achieving one’s personal and economic desires superseded everything else – any actions taken to achieve those goals are justifiable, and any actions that place others over oneself are destructive; one should only act on behalf of himself, and if something or someone cannot be of use in achieving your goals, then they are devoid of value, even our fellow human beings.
In Rand’s philosophy, individual rights supersede all forms of authority. While opposition to oppressive governments has often affected positive change throughout history – the American and French revolutions, the Civil Rights Movement – Rand’s is concerned more with self-servitude than improving the human condition.
“A society that robs an individual of the product of his effort, or enslaves him, or attempts to limit the freedom of his mind, or compels him to act against his own rational judgement … is not, strictly speaking, a society, but a mob held together by gang rule (Rand, p. 102).”
Taken by themselves, these words are not inflammatory or destructive, but they become such when one considers the intent behind them. For Rand, robbing an individual of the product of his effort meant having to make a sacrifice for the sake of the collective good, attempting to limit the freedom of his mind meant acknowledging that some of his ideas may not translate to the real world, and compelling him to act against his own rational judgement meant compelling him to realize that, while beneficial to him, certain actions he takes may have negative consequences for others around him.
Rand was also a strong proponent of free and open competition within the economic sphere, believing that a landscape free of regulation from governing bodies would allow the most intelligent, creative, visionary individuals to exercise their abilities to their fullest potential. In her essay “The Monuments,” Rand uses great buildings, such as the pyramids of Egypt and the skyscrapers of today to illustrate how unencumbered competition benefits all of society:
“America’s skyscrapers were not built by public funds nor for a public purpose: they were built by the energy, initiative and wealth of private individuals for personal profit. And, instead of impoverishing the people, these skyscrapers, as they rose higher and higher, kept raising the people’s standard of living—including the inhabitants of the slums, who lead a life of luxury compared to the life of an ancient Egyptian slave or of a modern Soviet Socialist worker (Rand. p. 86).”
Here Rand presents an image of the world where the best and brightest have been allowed to let their talents shine, creating awe-inspiring structures which act as monuments to human greatness, and affording everyone a quality of life which would be otherwise impossible. Everyone who wins and loses in this world deserves to, either due to their talent, or lack-thereof. It is a perfectly fair world, where no outside forces are necessary to maintain order. This is Rand’s belief, now, the remainder of this essay will use McCarthy’s “The Road” to challenge its validity.
In “The Road,” we see a world which has endured both the destruction of civilization, and the death of all natural life on Earth: no birds flying overhead, no fish in the rivers, no animals in the forest which might be hunted. All that’s left are a few scraps of the old world. We see the remnants of Liberal Economics in how the survivors treat one another, something illustrated to horrifying effect in one particularly striking scene:
“The boy clutched at (his father’s) coat. He could see part of the stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous (McCarthy, p. 110).”
We share the horror of the characters in this scene as they discover human beings held captive so that the house’s inhabitants can eat them one body part at a time. Rather than the active “naked people were huddled against the back wall,” McCarthy uses the passive “Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female,” putting us in the perspective of the boy and man. The details creep in on us, forcing us to put everything together ourselves, and making the scene especially powerful. What’s more, McCarthy uses subtlety to great effect: the captives – who are, for all intents and purposes, livestock – are clearly afraid to see and hear people coming downstairs, which means they have been down there for quite some time, and the alliteration used to describe the stumps of the man’s thighs as “blackened and burnt,” emphasizes the terrifying nature of this scene. In this world, things are defined by their capacity for usefulness, just as how in laissez-faire capitalism, things are defined by their capacity for profit. The only things of any use are other people, reduced to nothing more than the meat on their bones. This scene is a striking visualization of how the principles stemming from liberal economics can persist in a post-civilized world. These people are being kept, stored, clearly whoever is holding them wants to keep them alive and consume their body parts gradually, like the man whose legs have been cut off. Their captors are maximizing their usefulness, just as laissez-faire capitalists believe all should be done to maximize the profits to be had from a resource. That this scene takes place at a former slave owning plantation has a special significance, as it ties this potential future to a period in the past when humans were also “consumed” for profit. How fitting that a novel critiquing Liberal Economics has a key scene take place in a relic of colonialism, the era in-which Liberal Economics truly took hold? In his critical essay, “Cannibalism, Consumerism, and Profanation: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the End of Capitalism,” Jordan J. Dominy explores the visible remnants of a consumer society in the post-apocalyptic landscape, such as the plantation house. Dominy believes that even in colonial days, the human cost of rampant capitalism was not lost on writers, with many comparing the consumption of luxury goods imported from the colonies—sugar, for example—with the exploitations of the enslaved bodies that toiled to produce it. The eighteenth-century social critic Jonas Hanaway went so far as to this as “autocannibalism”(Dominy, 2015).
The world of the novel is a lawless one, all the structures which oppressed people in the old world are gone, but so are those which maintained order, forcing survivors to rely only on themselves. The individual is more important than ever, with the only right left being the right to fight for one’s life. While the father knows that the only way to survive is through selfishness, the boy still maintains that there is room for altruism in this landscape, as seen in their interaction with the traveler Ely:
“(The boy) reached with his scrawny claws and took (the can of fruit) and held it to his chest. Eat it, the boy said. The old man looked down at the tin. He took a fresh grip and lifted it, his nose wrinkling …
“I know what the question is, the man said. The answer is no.
“What’s the question?
“Can we keep him. We can’t (McCarthy, p. 164).”
Within Rand’s version of Liberal Humanism, the right’s of the individual supercede the collective good – one must do what is best for one’s self regardless of how it may affects others. In “The road,” we see this attitude is able to manifest itself to its greatest possible extreme, where the concept of a collective good does not exist – in a world with rampant scarcity, everyone must fight for whatever they can get, and generosity makes no sense. What’s more, where laws once enforced human rights, people must defend themselves from oppressive forces in the post-apocalyptic landscape. Thus, only way possible for one to express their individual rights in this world is to make conscious decisions that will ensure their survival. While the father is not inherently a selfish person, he keeps the meager resources he has acquired for himself and his son because to do otherwise would put themselves at risk. The conversation above illustrates how the father’s self-interest conflicts with the boy’s innocent sense of generosity. In their current environment, sympathy such as the boy’s is a liability, and while it is certainly not in line with Randian ideas of free will and individual rights, it does point out a fallacy in the self-centered philosophies of Liberal Humanism. Liberal Humanism preaches that the individual should be allowed to do whatever he or she wishes with their wealth, most who subscribe to this philosophy interpret this to mean that they should not have to expend resources on anything that doesn’t benefit themselves, but if one truly does have the right to use their wealth in whatever way pleases them, and one wants to use their wealth to help others, then Liberal Humanism does support altruism. McCarthy connects the concept of free will to altruism by emphasizing the boy’s hands in this passage: hands are a universal symbol of generosity, but they also symbolize the ability to take action and exercise one’s will. What is more, the boy is giving Ely fruit, a symbol fertility and prosperity – the fruits of one’s labors, be fruitful and multiply, etc. – but it is canned, a leftover from the the pre-apocalyptic world, just like the boy’s spirit of giving – in a world where nothing grows, this canned fruit is the only fruit which will ever exist; in a world where altruism is obsolete, generosity will only come from someone too innocent to understand the new selfish reality.
Though the concept of an economy has been relegated to nothing more than a memory in the world of “The Road,” the remnants of free and open competition are strong enough in the minds of survivors for them execute them to absolutely horrifying effect, as seen in the man and boy’s observation of a cannibalistic blood cult:
“An army in tennis shoes, tramping. Carrying three foot lengths of pipe with leather wrappings … some of the pipes were threaded through with lengths of chain fitted at their ends with every manner of bludgeon … Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled high with goods of war, and after that the women, a dozen or more, some of them pregnant … (McCarthy, pp. 91 – 92).”
In this stretch of narration, there is no idea given to us of what the man or boy are doing, no descriptions of what they are thinking or feeling. Indeed, this scene has an almost detached quality to it, presenting itself through some omniscient authority, whose cold and methodical description grant an extra weight of omniscience to the blood cult’s presence. What’s more, notice how objective the above passage feels, there are no adjectives adding any layer of emotional terror, nor is there any need to, McCarthy lets the scene speak for itself, letting us discern for ourselves the cult’s role in this world, and placing us side-by-side with the father and son, watching the absolute worst this world has to offer parade by us. We know that the men at the front, carrying weapons, are the leaders, the strongest, and therefore the most well equipped to lead this cult. In Randian logic, they occupy the same place as an inventive artist or CEO, whose natural talents have granted them a position of great prestige. Of course, the flaw in this mentality is that if there is nothing restraining just what such individuals are allowed to do in competition, then they will be allowed to empower themselves to the point where they can eliminate all other competitors and take everything for themselves. McCarthy is aware of this and chocks this scene full of imagery to communicate it. Consider the crude weapons the leaders carry, a product of their own sadistic imagination, and which are now used to augment their brute strength, and coerce others into subservience. Also, the slaves: while the man and boy carry their goods themselves, expending the meager energy they have in the process, the cult leaders let the slaves bare that burden, freeing them to use their energy solely for inflicting violence on all who stand in their way. Then we have the women, who could be seen as wives of the cult leaders, until one considers that the purpose of the cult is to amass as many resources as possible for the leaders’ use, resources which would be wasted caring for helpless children, therefore, we should conclude that these women are being kept by the cult leaders to breed babies which will later be cannibalized. Here we see laid out before us the post-apocalyptic ghost of unencumbered competition, an entity designed solely for the purpose of consumption, with nothing limiting how much it is able to consume, or what methods it is able to employ to grow its capacity for consumption. Like the corporations of the pre-apocalyptic world, the cult has reached a level of power that makes it impossible for other groups or individuals to challenge them, allowing them to consume until there is nothing left, and even they starve.
Ayn Rand would have us believe that there is a natural order to Capitalist societies and that all would be well if we were allowed to earn, compete, and consume as much as we want, in whatever way we want. McCarthy is concerned with a much harsher reality, presenting a world where Capitalism has collapsed under its own grotesque weight, leaving little of the world we knew behind. Rand’s writing deals with hope, while “The Road” deals with fear, the fear that we have conditioned the act of consumption so deeply into our nature, that when there is nothing left to consume, we will consume ourselves.