The quote is from that “worldly philosopher,” socialist Robert Heilbroner, in a New Yorker article in 1989 (see Skousen). It acknowledges that Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises correctly predicted the decline and collapse of the worker’s paradise known as the USSR.
Bureaucrats in planned economies, as Mises pointed out in 1920, have no God’s-eye view (that is, omniscience), capable of flawlessly determining who should produce what, in what quantities, at what price, and who should get what, in what quantities, at what price.
In other words, socialism is incapable of economic calculation.
Ayn Rand, unfortunately, has yet to find her Heilbroner. Someday, perhaps, a distinguished member of the philosophical profession will announce that “Ayn Rand, of course, was right . . . about many things, but especially altruism.”
Even a cursory reading of Rand’s writings makes it abundantly clear that she did not understand altruism to mean kindness and gentleness or, for that matter, that she did not think it altruistic—or wrong—to aid a deserving friend or relative or to help little old ladies across the street.
To Rand, altruism means self-sacrifice, the giving up a higher value for the sake of a lower- or non-value, the pursuit of a career to please one’s parents instead of the career one truly loves and wants. It means marrying a person one does not love—again, to please those “significant others” who may disapprove of your choice’s religion, social class, race, ethnicity, . . . or sexual orientation.
It means doing your job because it’s your duty, not because you enjoy it. It means giving birth to a child you do not want and enslaving yourself to a mistake or accident that occurred when you were young.
“Moral purification through suffering” is how the ascetic life is sometimes described. It is the motto of altruism.
Immanuel Kant did not not know the word “altruism,” but he did give us the essence of it: always act from duty, not inclination.
It was Auguste Comte who coined the word, and he meant every bit of the notion of self-sacrifice. For Comte, the golden rule is too selfish, as is Jesus’ prescription to love your neighbor as yourself. Suicide is selfish and so are rights.
Fortunately, George Smith at libertarianism.org has read Comte’s “tiresome writings” that explain his theory in “excruciating detail.” In a five-part article, Smith demonstrates that Ayn Rand correctly understood the meaning of altruism.
Comte’s ethics, as quoted by Smith:
. . . never admits anything but duties, of all to all. For its persistently social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of rights, constantly based on individualism. We are born loaded with obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, and to our contemporaries. . . . All human rights then are as absurd as they are immoral.The agnostic Comte developed a secular religion such that our duty, harkening back to the devout Kant, is to all of humanity. As Kant said, our duty is to humanity as an end in itself; humanity is never a means to our own ends. Comte put it this way: “To live for others affords the only means of freely developing the whole existence of man.”
Rights, therefore, are out. The collective is in.
Does the individual even exist? No, says Comte. “Man . . . as an individual, cannot properly be said to exist, except in the too abstract brain of modern metaphysicians. Existence in the true sense can only be predicated of Humanity.”
So sacrifice the individual to the collective. On this, too, of course, Ayn Rand was right: altruism and collectivism go hand in hand.
And she was right that the unprecedented devastation of the twentieth century—between 100 and 300 million war deaths, depending on source—was caused by the two doctrines.
Kindness and gentleness are not what altruism is all about. Self-sacrifice is.
Postscript: The 1988 book The Altruistic Personality by Oliner and Oliner is sometimes taken to be the epitome of altruistic behavior. The book consists of a myriad of reflections by rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. Fascinating reading, the book shows that there were many Anne Franks throughout the occupied countries and several Schindlers. The authors correctly identify Comte as coiner of the word “altruism,” meaning duty, selflessness, and not acting on inclination, but then they redefine it for purposes of their study as “rescue behavior,” which means anyone who has the courage to act in the face of considerable risk.
Ayn Rand said she would take a bullet for her husband. This did not make her an altruist, nor does the behavior of these heroic rescuers make them altruists!