Worshiping Capitalism in the Temple of the Golden Calf

Today’s most distracting read is undoubtedly the University of Chicago’s John Paul Rollert writing at the Atlantic about a conference on Objectivism (put on by the Stalinists of Objectivism, the Ayn Rand Institute) he attended last summer in Las Vegas. He spends a good part of his article explaining the Galtish Faith to the uninitiated, but also uses the contrast between the sterile verities of Rand’s system with the poverty and squalor on display on the streets of Vegas.

A catechumen made his way to the microphone to ask the kind of question one might expect to be addressed by a session titled “The Inequality Debate.” Having spent a few days in Las Vegas, the young man was distressed by the evidence of poverty he had seen on the Strip, which can be considerable, given that Nevada’s tourism and housing industries were devastated by the financial crisis and the state still has the second-highest unemployment rate in the country. So much of the presentation seemed to revolve around a dispute between elites over the philosophical implications of inequality, he said, but what about “the street junkies? They are so miserable and they sleep on the street.” His question was simple: “Why isn’t the free market hiring those people?”

[ARI Executive Director Yaron] Brook’s response began unevenly, detouring through an observation about the malice of minimum-wage laws and a presentist history of the progressive era before turning to the young man’s question. “None of these phenomena that you’re seeing out there, homeless people and so on, are phenomena of capitalism,” he declared. The people outside the gates of The Venetian, hustling in the 111-degree heat, their fates are the “phenomena of mixed economy,” the side-effects of social welfare policies and regulations. They exist despite capitalism, not because of it.

Since capitalism is, to allude to the title of a book of essays from Rand, Alan Greenspan and other disciples, “the unknown ideal,” it can safely be defended from complicity with all human evil, notes Rollert.

But something else in Rollert’s account struck me as even more interesting that the contrast between Objectivist economics and the actual economy: the irony of a philosophical movement that began as a cult of architecture as the apex of human creativity (in Rand’s The Fountainhead) meeting in the bizarre manmade fantasy-scape of Vegas’ Venetian, headquarters of the man who epitomizes contemporary capitalism’s reality far more than the fictional John Galt: Sheldon Adelson.

As Rand famously described it, the “essence” of Objectivism was “man as a heroic being” with “productive achievement as his noblest activity.” It follows from this that every great work indicates a great man, making a dazzling skyscraper (Howard Roark’s achievement in The Fountainhead) or a revolutionary engine (John Galt’s in Atlas Shrugged) nothing less than a “monument to human morality….”

The Venetian Las Vegas is Sheldon Adelson’s monument to human morality. The hotel, which opened in 1999, replaced the venerable Sands Casino with a simulated medley of major sights in Venice. You can enter beneath an obelisk tower that recalls St. Mark’s Campanile before stepping onto a moving sidewalk to cross the arched back of the Rialto Bridge and glide into the Doge’s Palace. The actual palace in Venice received over 1.3 million visitors in 2010. The impostor receives 50,000 a day.

Once inside, you have to follow the arcade of shops along a faux canal, complete with recumbent lovers and crooning gondoliers, to find the gilded catacombs that are the conference halls. It’s not easy. Casino complexes are designed to disorient, denying those inside any sign of reality: where they are, what time it is, why, perhaps, they ought to go home already. Every time I turned a corner I seemed to find my way back into the casino, a coincidence that was at once irritating and entirely unremarkable.

Not to mention appropriate–not just the endless channeling of visitors to the dens of vice and profit, but the celebration of capitalism in the temple of the golden calf.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.