If we consider … the inner ferment that goes on with the body of every society, we see at once that the struggle for preeminence is far more conspicuous there than the struggle for existence. Competition between individuals of every social unit is focused upon higher position, wealth, authority, control of the means and instruments that enable a person to direct many human activities, many human wills, as he sees fit. The losers, who are of course the majority in that sort of struggle, are not devoured, destroyed or even kept from reproducing their kind, as is basically characteristic of the struggle for life. They merely enjoy fewer material satisfactions and, especially, less freedom and independence. [The Ruling Class, 30]
The tendency in Objectivism is to ascribe the struggle for preeminence as a mere manifestation of “power lust,” which is itself “only a corollary or aspect of dependence.”
Basically, the power-luster holds the premise that men live either by ruling or by being ruled. The dictator is just as dependent, just as unsure, as his followers; he merely chooses a variant—and, in fact, a lower—mode of expressing it. When you find a great many power-lusters in a nation, the explanation is still the psychology of dependence, and the philosophy that gives rise to it. [Leonard Peikoff, “Philosophy and Psychology in History”]
In other words, the struggle for preeminence, which has characterized every society known to history, is brought about by a “psychology of dependence” and “the philosophy that gives rise to it,” particularly the premises “that men live either by ruling or being ruled.” Here we have the typical strategy deployed by orthodox Objectivists whenever they find themselves confronted by an unpleasant fact: they seek to evade the fact by making it appear weak and pathetic. It may be comforting to think of Hitler and Stalin and Mao as suffering from a “psychology of dependence”; but it is not clear that such “dependence,” whether “psychological” or not, accounts for what is objectionable in these mass murderers. Nearly all human beings depend on other human beings to some extent. The businessman depends on his customers; the stay-at-home wife on her husband; children depend on their parents, etc. etc. A ruler depends on his sources of power: his army, his police, his supporters among the elite; but why this dependence constitutes a “psychology of dependence” is not explained and seems to be a product of wishful thinking. It’s a rationalization aimed at making evil appear less threatening, and therefore easier to accept and live with. It ignores the real issue, however: the fact, for example, that the worst “power lusters,” the most dangerous men who struggle for preeminence, are those who use terror to achieve their dominance. It also, and even more critically, ignores the pervasiveness of this struggle through history: the fact that it involves not merely blood soaked dictators, but even ordinary folks, who, although they don’t necessarily lust for political power, nonetheless experience an obsession with status that leads to irrational outcomes and threatens the achievement of Rand’s laissez-faire. Consider Steven Pinker’s summary of the work done by economist Robert Frank on this issue:
Frank has appealed to the evolutionary psychology of status to point out … shortcomings of the rational-actor theory and, by extension, laissez-faire economics. Rational actors should eschew not only forced retirement savings but other policies that ostensibly protect them, such as mandatory health benefits, workplace safety regulations, unemployment insurance, and union dues. All of these cost money that would otherwise go into their paychecks, and workers could decide for themselves whether to take a pay cut to work for a company with the most paternalistic policies or go for the biggest salary and take higher risks on the job….
The rub, Frank points out, is that people are endowed with a craving for status. Their first impulse is to spend money in ways that put themselves ahead of the Joneses (houses, cars, clothing, prestigious educations), rather than in ways that only they know about (health care, job safety, retirement savings). Unfortunately, status is a zero-sum game, so when everyone has more money to spend on cars and houses, the houses and cars get bigger but people are no happier than they were before. [Blank Slate, 303]
The inborn craving for status doesn’t merely cause people to behave irrationally in the economic realm, it makes them ripe targets for the politics of envy. In an earlier post, I have discussed Rand’s take on egalitarian envy: she saw envy as a manifestation of nihilism arising out of the influence of Immanual Kant. But a far more plausible explanation for this envy is the craving for status, which inspires various individuals to act against their economic self-interest in order to inflict an injury on those who have attained a higher position in the social scale than themselves. Since this obsession with status is at least partially influenced by innate factors, it cannot be cured or gotten rid of through refuting the premises through which this obsession is expressed. People don’t crave status because they have accepted this or that premise; rather, the craving predisposes these individuals to accept premises which encourage hostility toward free market outcomes.