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The Conscience Of an Objectivist

Matt Craighead

Readers who have observed over the past nine months my vociferous defense of capitalism may be surprised to learn that, five years ago, I was a socialist and an environmentalist. Though I celebrated Clinton’s reelection, I would have preferred a Nader presidency. Yet within only a few years my positions had completely changed. In the hope that you can learn from my many errors, I present to you the story.

It is said that if you are not a liberal when you are twenty, you have no heart; but if you are not a conservative when you are forty, you have no head. Although I disagree with a number of “conservative” political positions, and although this statement pronounces me (at my ripe old age of twenty) as heartless, I believe that there is here a great deal of truth.

I rejected religion at a very young age, and since conservatives seemed to be religious, obviously they were irrational and wrong about everything. I learned from kids’ science magazines that the earth was dying; that we needed to outlaw those nasty fossil fuels; that we needed to save the rainforests and the whales and the pandas. The only things in the way were those evil corporations, who cared more about the “economy” than about “ecology.”

My turning point was my senior year in high school, when I took a class in economics and frequently debated my teacher and other students. For example, I supported higher minimum wages. I disagreed that they caused unemployment; I believed that corporations could easily pay higher wages out of their bloated coffers. How wrong I was! It was economic illiteracy at its worst. When faced with impeccable arguments that minimum wages caused unemployment, that indeed price floors and ceilings in general cause surpluses and shortages, I had no answers.

My teacher handed out an article in class describing emissions trading and pollution taxes. I had thought that reducing pollution was as simple as cracking down on corporations, slapping limits and inspections on them. We could eventually outlaw all sorts of pollution. Yet simple economic arguments clearly demonstrated to me that even if zero pollution were technically feasible, it remains undesirable, and that allowing corporations to choose whatever pollution level they desired (but then pay a fee for it) was a better approach all-around.

This sort of pattern became embarrassing. Not only did I repeatedly lose arguments with my economics teacher, but I also began to wonder, “if I’m wrong about this, what else?” Liberals kept repeating the same fallacies over and over -- they had no answers for me. Perhaps I was too quick to write off those conservatives as impervious to reason; worse, perhaps I had been the one impervious to reason!

Another class, on law and justice, was also an eye-opener. One day we learned the difference between “equity” and “equality” and how, indeed, “equity” constituted a better goal. I had to admit that I hadn’t thought very carefully about that, either. I continued to reinvestigate all sorts of beliefs during college, and in the end, very few of my fundamental beliefs withstood scrutiny. Perhaps only those on religion were spared.

My summer job between high school and college, at a small software company, put the final nail in the coffin of my socialism. I learned a lot about the private sector, but what surely shocked me the most was large fraction of my income going to taxes. I began to think such previously forbidden thoughts as, “don’t I deserve to keep this money, rather than it going to some lazy bum?”

If you don’t know much about economics, I urge you to start learning. At the least, you’ll discover that helping the poor in the long run involves more capital accumulation and investment, not just handouts. Read Milton Friedman’s (admittedly dated) “Capitalism and Freedom” from cover to cover; he applies economic principles masterfully to political issues. Don’t write us right-wingers off as nutcases; you might just discover that we were right all along. And, if nothing else, ignore the priggish types insisting you devote life after graduation to “service”; just go out there and get rich!