Productiveness is your acceptance of morality, your recognition of the fact that you choose to live—that productive work is the process by which man's consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of acquiring knowledge and shaping matter to fit one's purpose, of translating an idea into physical form, of remaking the earth in the image of one's values—that all work is creative work if done by a thinking mind, and no work is creative if done by a blank who repeats in uncritical stupor a routine he has learned from others—that your work is yours to choose, and the choice is as wide as your mind, that nothing more is possible to you and nothing less is human—that to cheat your way into a job bigger than your mind can handle is to become a fear-corroded ape on borrowed motions and borrowed time, and to settle down into a job that requires less than your mind's full capacity is to cut your motor and sentence yourself to another kind of motion: decay—that your work is the process of achieving your values, and to lose your ambition for values is to lose your ambition to live—that your body is a machine, but your mind is its driver, and you must drive as far as your mind will take you, with achievement as the goal of your road—that the man who has no purpose is a machine that coasts downhill at the mercy of any boulder to crash in the first chance ditch, that the man who stifles his mind is a stalled machine slowly going to rust, that the man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap, and the man who makes another man his goal is a hitchhiker no driver should ever pick up—that your work is the purpose of your life, and you must speed past any killer who assumes the right to stop you, that any value you might find outside your work, any other loyalty or love, can be only travelers you choose to share your journey and must be travelers going on their own power in the same direction.
Rand is here guilty of over-romanticizing her virtue. “All work,” she declares, “is creative work if done by a thinking mind.” Really? And even worse, Rand goes on to insist that “no work is creative if done by a blank who repeats in uncritical stupor a routine he has learned from others.” So in other words, routinized work, doing as your told, is ruled out of hand. Such work is not virtuous; perhaps is even vicious.
Consider, in terms of contrast, Thomas Carlyle’s view of work:
All work, even cotton-spinning, is noble; work is alone noble: be that here said and asserted once more… A man perfects himself by working. Foul jungles are cleared away, fair seedfields rise instead, and stately cities; and withal the man himself first ceases to be a jungle and foul unwholesome desert thereby. Consider how, even in the meanest sorts of Labour, the whole soul of a man is composed into a kind of real harmony, the instant he sets himself to work! Doubt, Desire, Sorrow, Remorse, Indignation, Despair itself, all these like hell-dogs lie beleaguering the soul of the poor day-worker, as of every man: but he bends himself with free valour against his task, and all these are stilled, all these shrink murmuring far off into their caves. The man is now a man.
Carlyle also romanticizes work; but what a difference between his romanticization and Rand’s! Rand turns work into an adventure of creativity and self-actualization. But is that what most people find in work? Not at all. Plenty of uncreative work out there. Floors that need to be scrubbed; toilets that need to be cleaned; snow that needs to be shoveled; ditches that need to be dug; garbage that needs to be picked up. What has Rand to say to the those selected to do these unappetizing tasks? Nothing but a kind of mockery: be “creative” in them, she insists; don’t repeat a routine learned by others! There are two reasons why advice of this sort is bad to the point of cruelty. In the first place, most people who do menial work are not known for their creative intelligence; so that to urge them to think for themselves and work creatively will probably lead to trouble. And secondly, organized work requires hierarchy: bosses and managers telling workers and subordinates what to do. How much better, then, is Carlyle’s romanticization of productive work, since it includes work of all description, even of the meanest variety, and doesn’t romanticize independence and thinking for oneself!
Another possible mischief in Rand’s virtue of productivity is the implication that what is virtuous is not work per se, but the productivity of work, so that greater productivity is equivalent to greater virtue. But what constitutes greater productivity? Is Warren Buffett, the richest man in the world, more productive, and therefore more virtuous, than the Mexican field hand picking grapes from sun-up to sun-down for fifty dollars a day? What about the so-called “idle” rich? Not so many of such types any more, because of high tax rates; but they weren’t so uncommon a hundred years ago. Although most individuals who lived on their savings did not have regular jobs, they were not always completely idle. They may have had hobbies or pursued other interests. Could such hobbies or interests be consider productive even though they earned no income from them? Take, as one example, Arnold Bax, who lived in England during the first half of the twentieth century. Bax, due to his family, did not have earn a living. So he composed music—tone poems, symphonies, chamber works, songs, etc. Made very little money from his compositions, none of which ever became permanent fixtures in the standard repertoire. Can Bax be credited with practicing the virtue of productiveness? And if so, on what basis? What does it mean to be productive? Does it mean the production of market value? Or is it the production of anything, as long as it involves creativity? Or is it the “objective” quality of the thing produced that determines whether productiveness, and hence virtue, went into its making?
So many questions—yet all remain unanswered by Rand, shrouded in the ambiguities of her overheated rhetoric! Why could not Rand have contented herself with saying “Work is virtuous,” rather than creating this romantic ideal which few, if any, ever have a chance of reaching?