Communism Is a Race to the Bottom
Editor’s Note: Friends and members of The Atlas Society are among our greatest resources – providing energy, ideas, and support that actively shape our work. Their individual stories are testaments to Ayn Rand’s ideals of reason, achievement, and ethical self-interest. Sonia Vigen is a wife, mother, homeschooling advocate, and entrepreneur. Senior Editor Marilyn Moore, Ph.D interviewed Sonia about growing up in both West Germany and Romania. Sonia explains the stark reality of life under communism, the importance of freedom, and how reading Ayn Rand helped her both understand her own value and confidently pursue love, family, and career.
MM: Sonia, you lived in several different countries growing up, including a communist country, before moving to the United States. Where were you born? Tell me about the experience of leaving communism. What are some of the differences between a communist and a capitalist society?
SV: I was born in communist Romania. My parents got permission to leave because my father was Jewish, and he was allowed to return to the Jewish homeland Israel per the UN resolution after WWII. From there we went to Germany for better opportunities. Unlike other former communist citizens who risk their lives to escape illegally, we were able to return to Romania to visit with grandparents, and we did so every summer. I saw a stark difference emotionally between the people who lived in Germany and the people in Romania. The people who lived in Germany were happy, optimistic, and friendly. People in Romania were always sad, suspicious, demoralized, and hopeless. When you asked someone on the street how they were doing, the response was always a long story about the misfortunes their family had suffered.
Whenever my grandparents spoke honestly and negatively about the government with my parents, they would hide deep inside their home, turn up the volume on the television to drown out our conversation so that no one else could hear what we were saying. The fear of course was that if someone else heard our negative talk about the government they would report us to the authorities. People who talked negatively about the government had been known to disappear and were never heard from again. Conversely, no one was afraid of the government in Germany.
I noticed the difference as a child, and I asked myself what the difference must be. My seven year old brain answered me: “freedom.” I made up my mind at seven years old that freedom was an essential condition for human existence and happiness, and I have never had to change my mind. I still value freedom above all other considerations.
MM: Tell me about your education and what you do for a living.
SV: I have a Bachelor of Arts in political science. And I completed most of the work towards a masters in political philosophy. I also did 2 years of law school before I decided that it was not the right career for me. I was a paralegal for 10 years before I got married. After I married I was a homeschooling mom for 15 years. Now that my kids are older and they attend a brick and mortar school, I am starting a soap making business.
MM: How did you first hear about The Atlas Society? How long have you been involved with us?
SV: As an objectivist, I have known about the Atlas Society for many years but I thought of it as a rogue Objectivist organization because I was a follower of the “official” Ayn Rand Institute. But I stopped supporting the Ayn Rand Institute because I felt they did not allow freedom of thought. They do not sanction exploring different ideas, even for the purpose of learning, and they condemn such a large portion of society that my husband and I feel they are alienating most of the world. I still support their mission, and I think they are doing a great job at spreading the ideas of Ayn Rand in schools, but I do not feel that I get any benefits from that organization personally.
My husband Arno Vigen was the one who rediscovered The Atlas Society for us and we found that the organization allowed free thought, was welcoming to all kinds of Objectivists and they were very good at disseminating Ayn Rand’s ideas in a way that is palatable to many different types of people from different philosophical backgrounds. We are happy to support The Atlas Society because we see that with the leadership of Jennifer Grossman, they have a far greater reach than the Ayn Rand Institute.
MM: When did you first read Ayn Rand? What is your favorite Ayn Rand novel and why?
SV: When I was in college, a friend who has never gone to college told me that I should read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. He said I would like it, and that they would never tell me about Ayn Rand in college. He was right. I loved it and I would have never heard about her in my leftist, communist-leaning college. When I read Atlas Shrugged it was transformational. For the first time in my life I was witnessing a person who saw the world the way I saw the world.
But Ayn Rand gave me so much more than I knew in my little world. I loved the romantic story line. My favorite suitor for Dagny was Hank Rearden. He impressed me because of his work ethic and his ability to effectively run a business and his intelligence and ability to innovate. I was madly in love with Rearden. John Galt seemed like small potatoes to me and I never really understood why Dagny chose him over Hank. Of course that could be because we had the benefit of character development with Hank Rearden. We got to see his character grow and develop over time and we got to see more of his accomplishments and his fierce determination and cool courage under pressure.
I also loved the book because it gave me a defense of business and businessmen that I didn’t have before. I had always been defending businessmen on the basis of hard work. But Ayn Rand gave me another argument. She pointed out how businessmen create value for everyone else while they are creating value for themselves. Without businessmen (and women), the world would sink back into poverty, misery, scarcity, and death. That was the whole point of the book, and it was a brilliant analysis. It was a moral defense of capitalism. That was exactly what we had been missing and what we are still missing in the world today.
MM: Did your childhood experiences under communism add anything to your appreciation of Rand’s work?
SV: Yes of course. My childhood experiences convinced me that communism is an evil system of government because it did not allow people to act and think and pursue their life goals in freedom. I saw broken people in Romania. Communism is the philosophy of “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” It meant that the more ability a person had, the more they were required to work and produce without being able to keep any of the fruits of their labor and without being able to make progress in terms of wealth or possessions. Their existence depends solely and forever on the benevolence of the state. The more sickness, lack of talent and ability, and lack of intelligence a person possessed, the more resources were allocated to that individual for free without work or effort.
Every social encounter became a contest for who could have more sickness, misfortune, lack of intelligence and ability. People were afraid to develop their talent for fear of being exploited even more.
Whereas in capitalism, there is an incentive to develop talents. Capitalism allows people to experience not only the financial benefits of that pursuit but also the joy of following that path. In a capitalist society one can build financial independence through hard work, wise saving, and investing. Capitalism is a race to the top, and communism is a race to the bottom.
Ayn Rand experienced this phenomenon as well in her childhood and her work is the best representation of the clash between communism and capitalism and what each means. Socialism is often discussed in terms of fairness and justice. But those who have lived in communist countries know that it is the exact opposite of fairness and justice. It is the immoral right to use force to take from those who have earned their wealth in order to give to those who have earned nothing, all in pursuit of the crazy ideal of eliminating the need to work for basic subsistence, a goal that is not only impossible but undesirable. Ayn Rand was a brilliant philosopher who accurately identified the nature of free market capitalism and the nature of man and why free market capitalism is the best and most moral system of organizing society based on the nature of man.
MM: You met your husband Arno on an internet dating site. In your profile you made a specific reference to Atlas Shrugged. Tell me about your decision to choose a partner that way. Also, besides Arno, what other kinds of responses did you get?
SV: That is correct. In my profile I mentioned that I wanted a man who is as strong as Rearden Metal. Arno was one of the few who understood the reference and he submitted his resume for consideration. I received some responses from young Objectivists who were very idealistic. I found them to be charming but I wanted someone more mature and experienced in the world.
I also got some responses from individuals who were Ayn Rand fans but they had had no real success or adventures in life. Most of the men I got responses from also had no desire to get married and have kids. I was looking for someone like Rearden; a tough businessman who has worked and taken risks in a competitive market place and had some successes through hard work and determination. Arno impressed me with his business background. He had worked in 30 countries and was successful at bringing cell phone service to a former Soviet Union Republic of Armenia. He went to work in Armenia even when his life was in danger and continued to work for the best interest of his company even when faced with threats to his life. He managed to successfully build and sell the first cellular company behind the iron curtain. His courage and rational thinking under pressure impressed me. The cellular network that he built played a pivotal part in crushing a coup attempt against the government by rogue militant players. It’s truly a thrilling story worthy of a novel. I was also impressed with Arno because he shared my goal of getting married and having kids.
I think reading Ayn Rand gave me the courage to ask tough questions on dates with potential mates. Our culture frowns on asking personal questions too soon in a relationship. But after reading Rand, I realized I had a right to accomplish my goals in life and that meant finding a life partner whose goals were compatible with mine. I didn’t want to waste my time. If my tough questions scared someone off, I wouldn’t be losing anything of value. I was looking for someone who wasn’t afraid of a life with kids and a wife. And I found a wonderful man who has never shrunk from or regretted any part of the responsibility of having kids and a wife. He is indeed stronger than Rearden Metal. And he turned out to have some of the same innovative spirit as both Hank and John Galt. He has become an inventor and a scientist who will turn current scientific teaching on its head.
MM: What are three ways that Rand’s philosophy benefits your day-to-day life?
SV: As I mentioned above, reading Ayn Rand gave me the courage to ask tough questions on dates in pursuit of my ideal mate and children. Now that I have raised two wonderful children and they are more independent, I feel I have more confidence in my abilities in other areas of life. It feels good to have accomplished my first goal of having children. I have been doing exactly what I set out to do for the last 15 years of my life. There is more work to be done in getting our children ready for the world but the majority of it is behind us. The rest will be keeping kids on track, course correcting if necessary and just enjoying the wonderful human beings they are becoming. With these successes under my belt I feel ready to take on a new challenge. Building a business will be my next goal. Thanks to Ayn Rand, I know what I have to do – provide people with value and the best quality for the lowest price in the marketplace. Sounds simple. Right? Also, thanks to Ayn Rand, I have the courage to pursue profits unapologetically.
MM: What advice can you give to young people who are bombarded everyday by socialist propaganda?
SV: The most important piece of advice I would give to young people is know your worth, challenge the prevailing altruist philosophy in our culture, and get a clear understanding of what egoism really is. These are all intimately connected concepts.
Young people are often timid and afraid to ask for more in their job or in their relationships because they think they don’t have enough experience and therefore they don’t feel valuable. But they don’t realize that their youth and energy are big assets in the world. And if they have common sense and an ability to problem solve, they have everything that an older person could bring to the table.
It is also important to reject altruism as a way of life because altruism takes value away from the self and gives it to other people. Egoism is the philosophy that you own your own life and you have a right to live and act in your own rational self-interest. No one else owns you. No one else has a claim on your life, your energy, or the results of your energy. And it is perfectly moral for you to act in a way that promotes your rational self interest. That means that you have a right to do anything to the extent that it doesn’t interfere with the same right of others to act in their own rational self interest. In other words, do not harm others physically or with fraud.
It is important to note that acting in your best interest does not include crushing others without regard to their needs or feelings. To think that human interaction is either altruistic or ruthlessness is a very pessimistic view of human interaction. There are many ways that humans may interact with each other which can lead to mutual gain and mutual pleasure and that also does not include self-sacrifice. There is also the choice of non-interaction, which is valid sometimes.
Egoism also doesn’t mean that humans may never help each other. It is certainly nice to help others and it feels good, but it is not a requirement, and you do not need to use charity to justify following your own interests. I tend to prefer helping others rather than giving. Helping others implies that you’re moving someone further in the direction of self-sufficiency and dignity. Dignity is like confidence. It must be earned. It is not something that can be handed out from one individual to another. Confidence is earned by setting goals and accomplishing those goals.
I think many parents with good intentions try to give their kids a feeling of confidence by telling them they are great. But unfortunately they will find that method to be ineffective. The psyche knows if it has accomplished tough goals and it knows when it hasn’t. The way to earn confidence is through tough work and accomplishments. Dignity is the same. Yes we should help people in an emergency, but once the emergency is over, our goal should be to put people on the path to growth and development. Egoism is about the right to develop yourself and help others in a way that is most conducive to their development.
MM: Thank you so much, Sonia.