Thursday, February 03, 2011

Would John Galt Collect Social Security?

Everyone's been having fun with the story of Rand and her husband collecting Social Security benefits (at least US$52,000 worth it seems) as well as possibly very likely Medicare. Reason provides an evenhanded summary along with the standard Randian defense that it's ok so long as the recipient "regards it as restitution and opposes all forms of welfare statism."

It's a predictable libertarians-have-to-drive-on-state-highways line of argument (ie it's ok so long as you complain vociferously about statist tyranny while you're driving) and at first glance seems to be straightforward. But I think a subtlety here is being overlooked that undermines this angle.

Freelance writer Patia Stephens, who seems to have picked up on this story first, quotes the original interview by the ARI's Scott McConnell (now in the "100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand" volume) with New York social worker Evva Joan Pryor from whence this story emerged. Let's go to the tape:
“She [Rand] was coming to a point in her life where she was going to receive the very thing she didn’t like, which was Medicare and Social Security,” Pryor told McConnell. “I remember telling her that this was going to be difficult. For me to do my job she had to recognize that there were exceptions to her theory. So that started our political discussions. From there on – with gusto – we argued all the time.

“The initial argument was on greed,” Pryor continued. “She had to see that there was such a thing as greed in this world. Doctors could cost an awful lot more money than books earn, and she could be totally wiped out by medical bills if she didn’t watch it. Since she had worked her entire life, and had paid into Social Security, she had a right to it. She didn’t feel that an individual should take help.”

McConnell asked: “And did she agree with you about Medicare and Social Security?”

Pryor replied: “After several meetings and arguments, she gave me her power of attorney to deal with all matters having to do with health and Social Security. Whether she agreed or not is not the issue, she saw the necessity for both her and Frank. She was never involved other than to sign the power of attorney; I did the rest.”
The interesting point here is that far from having a clear conscience on the issue, as her defenders try to portray, Rand in fact is obviously conflicted, and only acquiesces after several meetings and arguments - and even then tries to distance herself from the decision by giving power of attorney to the social worker to apply for the government benefits, rather than simply doing it herself. Why this extreme reluctance, when she supposedly had provided her own philosophical get-out-of-jail-clause? I think that Rand sensed that her line of argument was in fact rather weak. After all, if she had simply paid for her own private medical insurance, or had sufficiently saved for her own retirement, she could have set a powerful example of uncompromising self-reliance in reality, and into old age (an area her virile fictional heroes never get to experience). Further, libertarian heroines such as her former mentor Isabel Paterson and Rose Wilder Lane set just such examples themselves, both declining to enrol in what they considered fundamentally immoral programs. Yet here was Rand, taking the government handouts. Rand well understood the power of symbolism; perhaps it was this image that stuck in her craw. There are many things she could have done with that regular social welfare cheque that could have put a PR thumb in the eye of statist authority - for example, announcing she'd fund The Objectivist with it, or donating it an anti-tax foundation or similar prank. Surely this is the kind of thing Howard Roark or John Galt would have done, rather than give a social worker power of attorney to quietly accept it for them.

Further, given her advocation of life-long self-responsibility, of thinking outside of the "range of the moment" to the long-term consequences of one's actions, it is puzzling how, given her undoubtedly considerable means she might now find herself needing to take this less than ideal option. Is it simply because, like so many people late in life, she found she'd ended up in a situation she didn't quite expect? And if so, how is the average income earner supposed to allow for their future circumstances any better?

In the end, Rand was an elderly woman of frail health with no family to support her, the fearful burden of a husband suffering from dementia, and facing a future that their means might not be sufficient for. In other words, she was the very person government programs such as Medicare and Social Security was designed for. Equally naturally, she looked at the options and took the money. The only question is why she would still consider the fact that option even existed to be ultimately evil.


A Liberal in Lakeview said...

Something's missing here. But what?

Oh, yes: evidence and good reason to believe the testimony credible.

Patia Stephens published a photo of a sheet of paper and an envelope with a return address of the SSA's Denver office. The sheet of paper has no letterhead, but it does have two names, "CHARLES F OCONNOR" and "AYN RAND", some numbers and dates, and an illegible scrawl, apparently someone's initials.

Inconclusive, as admitted by Patia. Yet Patia makes the ludicrous claim that "the only physical [sic] evidence that Ayn Rand received Medicare is in the interview Scott McConnell conducted with Evva Pryor." Well, Patia, printing the testimony of a witness doesn't convert that testimony into "physical evidence".

The McConnell report quotes an "Evva Pryror, a social worker and consultant" who "verified that...she secured...payments...under the name of Ann O'Connor".

So there we have an inconsistency in the story. Patia's sheet of paper reads "AYN RAND". And is the memory of Evva reliable almost 40 yrs after she would have helped obtain the payments? The first date on Patia's paper is 12/74.

Now, c'mon, let's think this through some more. How would Rand collect payments under the name "Ann O'Connor" without filing a petition with the court in her state of residence to legally change her name? And since when does the SSA or DHHS (the admin for Medicare) send out checks payable to whatever name that you or your designee should happen to tell them whenever? I can imagine the following conversation:

"Hello, SSA? This is Evva Pryror calling for Ayn Rand. Please make the the checks payable to 'Ann O'Connor'. No problem? Great! Thanks for being so flexible, on the fly, without any supporting documentation from a court to confirm the change of name."


So, was "Ann O'Connor" her legal name? That's the first thing you, McConnell, etc. should have checked.

Another FOIA request to the SSA and DHHS, too, are clearly in order to find out what if any payments were made to "Alisa Rosenbaum", "Ayn Rand", "Ayn O'Connor", or "Ann O'Connor", "Frank O'Connor", and "Charles F O'Connor".

Now, what about the law firm mentioned in the story at reason and BoingBoing? What, exactly, is the relationship, and do they have records?

And what about some bank records?

How about some statements mailed to "Ann O'Connor", "Ayn Rand", etc. by the SSA or DHHS? What about medical records?

This story does not even begin to pass the smell test.

Let Evva Pryror and Scott McConnell produce some documentation with which to substantiate the claim.

Neil Parille said...

For some reason I thought Rand accepting Social Security was well known before 100 Voices.

Pryor describes Frank as Rand's "intellectual companion" and how smart he was, which certainly goes against what everyone else has said. She also seems to accept at face value Rand's claim that he was smarter than her (Rand). So I wonder about her insight into some things.

-Neil Parile

Mark Plus said...

Reason magazine, of all places, published the following several years ago:

In its pure form, Rand's philosophy would work very well indeed if human beings were never helpless and dependent through no fault of their own. Thus, it's hardly surprising that so many people become infatuated with Objectivism as teenagers and "grow out of it" later, when concerns of family, children, and old age--their own and their families'--make that fantasy seem more and more impossible.

So, apparently, even Rand "grew out of" her own philosophy when she and her husband became vulnerable and she saw the impossibility of maintaining her fantasy world. Shouldn't she have committed suicide instead because she had no more values to seek at that point?

Daniel Barnes said...

Lakeview Liberal:
>And is the memory of Evva reliable almost 40 yrs after she would have helped obtain the payments?

The interview was in 1998, 24 years after. That's still a long time - perhaps she might have confused Rand with another famous elderly female Russian libertarian writer withwhom she frequently argued over the merits of accepting government welfare and had power of attorney for...;-)

>How would Rand collect payments under the name "Ann O'Connor" without filing a petition with the court in her state of residence to legally change her name?

It appears this was her married name.

Bronxboy47 said...

"In the end, Rand was an elderly woman of frail health with no family to support her, the fearful burden of a husband suffering from dementia, and facing a future that their means might not be sufficient for. In other words, she was the very person government programs such as Medicare and Social Security was designed for. Equally naturally, she looked at the options and took the money. The only question is why she would still consider the fact that option even existed to be ultimately evil."

That is, indeed, the only question that matters.

John Tate said...

John Galt collected a god damn scholarship into University, so he should collect welfare as well if he honestly needs it because of the tax burden. Were not martyrs and that is obvious, but lets face it, you're trying to confuse people about what Objectivism is and nothing else. We don't martyr ourselves out of oppertunities just because the state controls them. Especially when there is a large and free economy.

Ayn Rand paid into social security and had every right to collect from it. Leonard Peikoff paid into this system and he too has every right to collect from it. Though, it doesn't mean welfare itself is a right - I mean a different context (I've noticed you have great difficulties with identifying and specifying context correctly, so I clarify for you) that when your money is being voted into a pot you have every right to go collect what you can. Ayn Rand paid a fucktonne of income tax, as do most of us before we die.

I had money troubles myself and so I asked a senior Objectivist what to do. He said to go to a charity, so I did. When it comes to early Objectivists and repression your blog undestands somethings but when it comes to mature Objectivists you seem to misunderstand everything. You probably are not using her work directly, so I suggest you do. This is why the Ayn Rand Lexicon should cost a fee - because it might be your only source if this is how you see Objectivism.

John Tate said...

Also, as a citation for that first paragraph I suggest you read "How to lead a rational life in an irrational society," which is in The Virtue of Selfishness.

Why is this so damning for you anyway? Ayn Rand also stood proudly next to Alan Greenspan when he was sworn in to the Federal Reserve. Ayn Rand was willing to be seen with Greenspan and Reagan in a photo. I think this a symbol myself - that what Alan Greenspan was going to do was needed and that is to infiltrate and destroy that financial beast he always hated. It was his life's passion to earn the trust and destroy the Federal Reserve.

I'm sure she enjoyed all the moon landings as well. Actually, I know this, she thought the moon landings were a pretty badass feat.

Bronxboy47 said...

@John Tate
The question has been posed by someone else, and it bears repeating: Did Rand keep track of how much money she was getting from the government to make sure she didn't accept a penny more than what she put in--plus interest of course? Given her braying proclamations of fastidious aversion to public handouts and her constant denigration of people who accepted them as leeches. you would think it would be a point of honor with her to keep such a ledger. No such ledger has ever been produced, and I doubt one will ever be forthcoming.

As I've said before, when self-preservation is the cornerstone of one's philosophy, it is impossible to betray one's principle, since principles are the first things tossed overboard in a life-threatening situation. I'm sure Rand would feel perfectly justified in tossing children out of a lifeboat in order to make room for herself. That the nature of the Goddess you worship.

gregnyquist said...

"Why is this so damning for you anyway?"

I don't think it's a question of whether it's damning, but whether it's problematic. There's a very good reason why self-interest, whether considered "rational" or not, has a bad name: it's because centuries of human experience have shown how easily self-interest can become exploitative. After all, who's to decide whether a given manifestation of self-interest is "rational" or not? Why, in Rand's case, it was always Rand herself. Now there's an old adage that no one should be a judge in their own cause. Experience teaches that human beings, when governed solely by self-interest, fall prey to casuistry. No matter how hard they try to be rational and objective in their self-interest, the ability of self-delusion is just too strong. Without consciously realizing it, they begin rationalizing their own private desires, regardless of whatever justice, honor, or obligatino to the rights of others demands.

The problem with Rand's rationalization for taking government handouts is that it has the flavor of casuistry about it. While it may not be absolutely wrong or even hypocritical for Rand to accept such things, it doesn't seem particularly high-minded or honorable, particularly in comparison to Rose Wilder Lane and Isabel Paterson. Rand was, after all, a hugely successful author. She could have afforded to take the high road in this instance.

Anonymous said...

it's perfectly consistent that she would take any government handouts offered, but resist them being made available to anyone else.

"damn the hindmost, i'm all right!"

having been blessed by her departure, the world can only get better when her monstrous, stupid ideas are laughed into oblivion

Anonymous said...

Nah she got old... in none of her books are any or the protagonists or characters old, feeble suffering from ill health and the victims of their own bad decision making brought about by the fact that they simply aren't psychic!

So she took the money, simple as that... its not like there was ana alternative.

Any and all political, religious or social philosophy comes to nought when mother nature comes knowcking at the door to tell you your time is up.

Rand knew this above all else. That she is an animal, an intelligent animal but still an animal, living among a species of animal... and lucky for her they are asocial type of animal... she can at least be grateful she wasn't born a tiger!

I sure she constructed some half baked rationalization for it (doubtless after the fact) and then promptly forgot about it lest it dwell on her conscience.

Unfortunately for her she had spent her life engendering in anyone that might be later in life sympathetic (her friends like for example alan Greenspan) the philosophy of leaving her to die....

To my mind I'd see that as 'checkmate' for her own philosophy.. proven demonstrable by her own circumstance... save for the grace of the US taxpayer.

How ironic.

Anonymous said...

ohh and as far as a 'liberal in lakeview' (the comment above) goes.... it doesn't matter whether she did or did not receive medicare... or handouts by resorting to begging on the street.

From the point of view of a philosophy it does not stand or fall on the actions of either its protagonist, author, inventor or even any one of its adherents...

Its stands or falls on whether when practiced if it actually works well for society.

I think given what we know of human beings and their society and their anthropology and social circumstance, innate altruistic and communal behavior etc. that Rand might have described some interesting philosophical positions... but since she simply can't change the minds or behavior of an entire species the points she made... much the same as any other political philosophy are totally irrelevant.

NATURE decides our behavior toward one another ... its decided Rand is and always was simply mistaken.

SRegan said...

The Objectivist line that Rand was entitled to take money from Medicare to get back some of what the state took from her is unfortunately contradicted by her own words circa 1957:

"I am speaking to those who desire to live and to recapture the honor of their soul. Now that you know the truth about your world stop supporting your own destroyers. The evil of the world is made possible by nothing but the sanction to give it. Withdraw your sanction. Withdraw your support. Do not try to live on your enemies’ terms or to win at a game where they’re setting the rules. Do not seek the favor of those who enslaved you, do not beg for alms from those who have robbed you, be it subsidies, loans or jobs, do not join their team to recoup what they’ve taken by helping them rob your neighbors. One cannot hope to maintain one’s life by accepting bribes to condone one’s destruction. Do not straggle for profit, success or security at the price of a lien on your right to exist. Such a lien is not to be paid off; the more you pay them, the more they will demand; the greater the values you seek or achieve, the more vulnerably helpless you become. Theirs is a system of white blackmail devised to bleed you, not by means of your sins, but by means of your love for existence." - John Galt

Now, the above constitutes an absolute statement of morality; you simply cannot have it both ways. Was Rand irrational, therefore anti-life, therefore evil when she wrote Atlas Shrugged, or when she took the money of others to sustain her own life?

Daniel Barnes said...

Great catch.