OPINION: Ayn Rand doesn't work as moral compass any more

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Lane Filler is a columnist and editorial writer for the Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald-Journal.

When Ayn Rand burst on the intellectual scene almost 70 years ago, her work offered a clear moral compass for libertarianism. Her vision continues to inform conservatism today.

Boiled down to its essence, Rand's message is this: Everyone should get a job and work at it relentlessly, whether as riveters or titans of industry. The capitalist masters and artists - who in Rand's world were also the most talented menial laborers and took great pleasure from such work - earn more money, but they don't care about it, being interested only in the purity of their labor and its product.

It sounded fair enough, and in many ways it was. Rand published "The Fountainhead" in 1943 and "Atlas Shrugged" in 1957. Industrialization was mushrooming as she came of age and began to write, but computerization and robotics were still in their infancy. There were still plenty of jobs for those with little education and limited intellect.

"Get a job," the conservatives howled, and their howls had merit in that world.

But that world is gone.

In 1900, 41 percent of American workers toiled in agriculture, harnessing 21 million work animals to grow and harvest their crops. By 1945, those numbers were plummeting, but 16 percent of workers still labored on farms, alongside 12 million animals. The difference was the presence of 21/2 million tractors. By 2000, just 1.9 percent of Americans worked on farms, and in the place of animals, they utilized about 5 million tractors.

Other massive industries, from logging to mining to commercial fishing to manufacturing, experienced a similar reduction in the use of brute force and simple tools in concert with a vast increase in complex automation.

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So while Rand's work is experiencing a resurgence, it takes as its moral reference point a society that has disappeared.

According to the Weschler intelligence scale, 25 percent of humans have IQs below 90. For most of human history, that was just fine. The toil of most people was so intellectually unchallenging that being ignorant, or even dull, was no hindrance.

But lots of farm workers these days have to be pretty sharp. You don't entrust $200,000 tractors or pickers to dolts. And factory workers no longer spend their shifts drilling holes; they program machines to drill holes.

In some ways the invention of the Roomba, a machine that can vacuum a carpet with no human aid, seemed to confirm the changes that had been brewing. People used to vacuum. People used to employ others to vacuum. But as technology continues to improve, they will do so less and less.

That is true of a lot of mindless tasks. The Roomba hit the market in 1992, and today its manufacturer, iRobot, also sells a floor washer, a garage sweeper, a pool cleaner and a gutter cleaner. In the same vein, numerous manufacturers now sell robotic lawn mowers that cut the grass on a programmed schedule, then proceed back to their power source to recharge.

There aren't a lot of jobs around for the dim or the ignorant. Many such people are not and will not be technically "unemployed," because they will never gain employment long enough to be counted in the workforce.

Some of the views espoused by Rand will always resonate. That which governs least governs best. Civil liberties are of paramount importance. People act out of self interest.

But "Get a job" is no longer the answer to every societal ill.

There are many for whom we have no labor. And there will be more of them as technology advances further. We can take care of them or not, but we can't pretend the inability of the ignorant and unintelligent to acquire meaningful work in the computer age is the same thing as laziness. It isn't.

And until conservatism comes up with a better catchphrase, it's going to be stuck without an acceptable moral compass.

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