Let us turn our attention to Ayn Rand, whose Objectivism theory has been generally rejected by almost everyone except Libertarian survivalists and Alan Greenspan. Her laissez-faire, every-man-for-himself philosophy states that "weak" people are not deserving of love, and that it is unethical to help anyone except yourself. Everything she stands for runs counter to the Judeo-Christian ideals on which, like it or not, our country was founded. She despised the "welfare state" and believed in a separation between economics and government. I'm ashamed to say that I still hold her in some esteem, since she was really smart and had her philosophy mapped out systematically — she wasn't like David Duke, for example, who created a bunch of lofty syntax to support his backwoods bigotry.
I have been trying to approach Rand's ideas with an open mind, not so much to accept them for myself, but to really try to see where she was coming from. How lucky am I, then, to write a bar column, because what better micro-economy is there to study human behavior? If an entire bar was populated with Objectivists, what might that look like? Well, no one would be buyin' the whole place a round, for one thing. But is buying a drink for another person truly a selfless act? Hmm.
I wanted to choose a place for my social experiment that was not known for being a pickup spot, a hipster haven, or a lonely watering hole. I needed a friendly spot with a mixed crowd, a microcosm of America. I chose Dave's on Third Street. Other visits there have been fruitful: Several people bought me drinks after I struck up conversations with them.
Dave's is small, consisting of one square room with tables and a bar with a few stools. It looks like your typical tavern, complete with goofy pictures of regulars pasted up on the walls, and patron-created artwork. Most of the regulars seem to work in the nearby hotels at the front desks or as porters or doormen. There are also suits in attendance, down-to-earth guys who made an effort to find a bar that does not serve mojitos.
Walking into Dave's, I always feel a mixture of warmth and anxiety — everyone seems to know each other, but I do not know them. I want to belong. This feeling of being alone is further proof that Rand was whack. We need each other.
Luckily I didn't have to brood by myself for long, because a man gestured to me to take the last stool, smack-dab in the middle of everyone. I smiled and sat down, then ordered a drink. "You look tired," my new friend said. "Long day?"
Actually I had just woken up from a six-hour nap. "Yeah, glad it's over," I said. (I'm not sure where lying falls into the Rand ideal.)
I gave him a gander. He was about 50, with dirt under his nails. It was the kind of dirt that you can't wash off, not in a Shakespeare kind of way, but more in a mechanic kind of way. The TV was showing a blurb about Osama bin Laden's porn stash. We watched it and chuckled. He looked back and forth from the television to me, and I could feel him sizing me up. This is part of the job, gentle reader: A woman who enters bars alone must accept her fate. Here is where a real ethical question comes up. I knew that if I wanted, I could get this guy to buy me drinks. All it would take would be one touch on his forearm, or a giggle to one of his asides. I usually never accept drinks, unless I have been having a genuine, pleasant conversation that has lasted more than 30 minutes. At that point, we have usually forged a tacit friendship. Although Rand believed in ethical self-interest, she would not have accepted handouts. And she sho'nuff would not have bought any drinks for people herself.
But here is where I see some truth in her mojo: If this fellow were to buy me a drink, it would not be wholly altruistic. By buying me a drink, he would actually be serving himself, if he intended to get me drunk and try to take me home. Is it possible that there is no such thing as complete selflessness? Even a mother's love for her child could be based on her own need for affection. Biologist E.O. Wilson studied altruism among ants and found that helping each other helps the colony as a whole and thus is beneficial to each individual ant.
I finished my drink and sat there, wondering what approach to take. My conscience told me that the high road would be to not let this man buy me a drink
"Hey," he said, turning on his stool toward me, "I'm a little light. There was a problem with my paycheck, and I've gone back and forth trying to get the thing cashed — is there any way you could buy me a beer? I can get you back next week. Do you come here a lot?" He continued with his long-form story, the kind you tell when you are not telling the truth.
"Sure," I said. I felt a strange relief. The tables were turned and I did not have time to think things out. I suppose my buying him a beer was altruistic, though I knew if I had said "No" that I would be made to feel uncomfortable. I did not want that, so ultimately, yeah, it was about me.
"I wonder what kind of porn Osama had?" I asked him, moving on. "Was it, like, women's ankles, or perhaps their faces below their noses?"
He giggled loudly, which is what you are supposed to do when someone has bought you a drink and made a joke that wasn't really funny.
I still don't know where I stand on this Rand stuff. When I get stuck, I always end up at the same place. The only real philosophy that makes sense is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
"Orbit?" I said, offering him a piece of gum.
"Don't mind if I do!" he replied.