The author of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand, promoted a philosophy of self-interest as the ideal for society. While there is a major flaw in her reasoning (primarily that, in the world she envisioned, a lack of any internal control will inevitably lead to the rise of tyrants), her philosophy does assert an eternal truth. But it wasn’t until I read Mamet’s book, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, that I fully understood why so many on the Left disagree. You see, the problem is that too few on the Left understand the difference between greed and ambition. As Mamet explains it (and I agree), greed—the character trait to which the Left claims to object – is a sin, and therefore, harmful to society. But ambition is virtuous and beneficial to society. One destroys by sapping the efforts of others, the other drives all constructive human activity. Where the Left seems to miss the point is that their desire for the property that was justly earned by ambitious people is actually greed, as is the desire for the power to control how other peoples’ money should be distributed.
You see, “greed” does not have to apply only to money: it can apply to anything one desires. And when greed is allowed to grow to the point that it leads one to trample on the rights and property of other people, it becomes sinful and destructive. In the case of those who seek money for the sake of money, then greed is as destructive as those who seek power. In both cases, such greed inevitably leads to the compulsion to control others, and that is a sin against the other person’s conscience. However, when the drive is simply to create or achieve, then society is built up and carried forward. If a secondary result is that the ambitious person should grow wealthy, there is no greed. That is just the result of other people paying for the service provided by that person’s ambition. In other words, wealth that results from the service of other people is not greed. So, where ambition drives advancement, greed saps the efforts of the ambitious. Where ambition builds up, greed tears down and destroys.
At this point, all that remains is for the intellectually honest person to acknowledge that the collective rests upon the need for coercion. Once that fact is acknowledged, the conclusion naturally follows: individual self-interest can be beneficial to society, but collectivism is always destructive.