Since Ayn Rand fan Rick Santelli got the party started, it is hardly surprising that the Tea Party contains many elements of Rand’s philosophical views. Quotes from her works have been popular at Tea Party events and some Tea Party leaders, such as Paul Ryan, make it clear that they have been strongly influenced by her works.
Aside from the actual bible, Atlas Shrugged could be regarded as the Tea Party bible. In this book, John Galt goes on “strike” against those he regards as parasites and this soon inspires the leaders of industry and invention. Following him, they leave the rest of society to fend on its own. Society does not fare well: deprived of the true elite, the masses are unable to keep things going and the world falls to pieces. This work, of course, is largely a fictional assault on the doctrines of Marxism (at least Marxism as Rand saw it).
As far as why the masses cannot survive without these elite and why the elite should abandon them, Galt says:
The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.
This is, clearly enough, a reversal of the classic Marxist view. Rather than having a few capitalists deriving their vast wealth by exploiting masses of workers, Rand envisions the masses deriving their very survival by exploiting the competent and intelligent few. All the unfortunate elites receive is mere “material payment”, which is presumably not enough compensation for their efforts. The idea of a small elite toiling to keep the moronic masses alive was also put forth in Cyril Kornbluth’s 1951 short story “The Marching Morons”, which predates Atlas Shrugged.
This view does have a certain appeal. First, innovations and inventions are developed by relatively few people and then used by the many who generally have little understanding of the technology, science or theories involved. For example, dumb people have smart phones that they use without any meaningful knowledge of logic, programming, or technology. As another example, the philosophical ideas of capitalism and democracy were developed by a few thinkers, yet benefit the uncomprehending masses. Second, leadership is always provided by the few and they lead the many who would generally be lost without such leadership. An army without leadership is just an armed mob. A business without leadership is not a business at all. Third, numerous philosophers, such as Aristotle, have argued that the masses lead a bovine existence and are interested only in pleasure rather than higher pursuits or fine ideals. As such, a plausible case can be made to support the claim that the many need the competent few more than the competent few need the many.
Of course, a pragmatic case can be made as to why the few also need the many, even it is assumed that the masses are as lacking as Rand seems to hold. First, business would seem to require the many in their roles as workers and consumers. After all, no matter how amazing a CEO might be, they cannot single handedly produce, distribute, sell (and then buy) the products or services that provide their great wealth. Obviously enough, the sort of massive wealth that the top people have is only possible with the contributions of the masses. Second, civilization and all its trappings (such as buildings) also seems to require the contributions of the masses. While Kufu might have called for a pyramid to be made, he would still be working on it if he had to do it by himself. Third, in order for the great leaders to have anyone to lead, there must be other people who are followers. As Will Rogers said, “We can’t all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.”
The above points do, of course, rest on the assumption that Galt is right about the many. However, the claim that “the man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains” certainly can be questioned.
This matter is, of course, an empirical one. Taken at face value, the “bottom men” are so inept that they could not even acquire food for themselves and so useless that they contribute nothing (at least nothing to those above them). While there are some people who are like this, they seem to be rather few in number. First, average intelligence (or less) would seem to suffice to be able to sort out how to acquire food (if only after a rough period of trial and error). There is also the obvious point that the elites would probably also have a rough time of it without farmers and other providers of food. Put crudely, it is not the CEO who is out in the field raising the crops or tending the cows. Second, while there are some people who do contribute nothing, most people do work and contribute. As just noted, the food that appears on the CEO’s plate does not arrive there by magic. The roads, universities, dams, power plants and so on also do not appear and run themselves. As D’Alembert said, “but while justly respecting great geniuses for their enlightenment, society ought not to degrade the hands by which it is served.” That seems sound advice.
I will, of course, concede that there are some people who are “bottom men.” In some cases, they would be classified as such because of mental or physical impairments. In other cases ,they would be on the bottom because of age: too old or too young to fend for themselves or to contribute to those “above” them. While some would clearly approve of abandoning the handicapped, children and the elderly, this would seem to be a morally wicked thing to do. At the very least, anyone who was a child or plans on living to old age should probably oppose such a view if only on purely pragmatic grounds. Then again, perhaps some can honestly claim that they should have been abandoned as useless parasites when they were children and that they should also left to fend for themselves when they are too old to gather their own food and contribute to those “above” them. If so, I would praise their consistency while condemning their ethical failings.
As a final point, while some Tea Party folks and others might praise Rand and idolize Galt, the vast majority of them would seem to fall into Galt’s category of “bottom men.” If Galt were real, they would not be joining him in Atlantis but rather be left behind to perish. The very idea of a popular and broad movement based on these views is beautifully ironic. After all, the many are to be abandoned by the very few elites. Naturally, everyone who buys into these ideas sees themselves as an elite. But, of course, by their own ideology most (if not all) of them must be wrong.