Mike Rowe and Ayn Rand
Somebody’s Gotta Do It
By Carrie-Ann Biondi
Open any newspaper. Turn on any news channel. Politicians and many of their constituents clamor for government to “do something” about the latest so-called emergency. Whether it’s about the economy, education, or healthcare, they urge that “somebody’s gotta do it,” and by that somebody, they mean “all of us” through the collective long arm of the law. Above the din of chronically doom-saying headlines rise voices. Were we to listen to them, there would be a massive turnaround toward prosperity, creativity, and life-satisfaction rather than a continued downward spiral into stale policies, debt, and recession. Those voices provide keys to a different way of being.
Two of the most pertinent of those voices are: Mike Rowe and Ayn Rand. Their names are not often heard in the same sentence, but they should be. Many might not realize how consonant Rowe’s and Rand’s views are, nor the ways in which their approaches to addressing the ills of our time can instruct one another. Most fundamentally, Rand and Rowe understand that reality requires each of us to work for a living, uphold the virtue of productiveness, and appreciate that there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” work, but only honest work done well or poorly.
When dispensing advice to a fan interested in how Rowe got his T.V. show, he urges what amounts to a virtuous work ethic:
Work for free if you have to. Make yourself indispensable. Be insatiably curious about every aspect of every other position. Work harder than everyone else around you, and smile your face off the whole time. Be humble. And above all, don’t be a dick. . . . [I]t’s a crooked road Neal, and more often than not, it won’t take you where you want to go. But if you work your butt off, and keep your foot on the gas, it might take you someplace better. (Facebook post, 1/25/2015)
This advice is based not only on Rowe’s personal experience in the workforce, but also on his observations of those he apprenticed with on his shows. He says,
I met hundreds of men and women who proved beyond all doubt that hard work didn’t necessarily have to be conditioned on anything other than a personal decision to bust your own ass. By and large, the workers I met on [‘Dirty Jobs’] were happy and successful because they were willing to work harder than everyone else around them. And in doing so, they thrived. . . . In fact, many of the ‘Dirty Jobbers’ we featured were millionaires. (Profoundly Disconnected, p. 147).
Rowe’s recommended work ethic involves showing initiative and being industrious, responsible, unpretentious, and friendly.
In order to see how Rowe’s view about the character traits required for work are similar to Rand’s view about productiveness as a virtue, we need to see how she grounds virtue in the ultimate value of man’s life. At the foundation of Rand’s ethical theory is the choice to live. It is one’s own life that is the proper object of ethics. When you are committed to being alive, you then need to choose to use your mind’s reasoning faculty to figure out how to do that the right way in relation to one’s nature. Rand’s view of human nature provides a deep grounding for ethics. It makes sense out of the values at stake and the virtues required to achieve them—including the virtue of productiveness. Since we are not disembodied minds or mere collections of molecules, but embodied rational beings with physical and psychological needs, we need to function in the world based on carefully acquired knowledge that is objective and agent-relative. For example, it is an objective fact that humans need to eat food to survive, but eating almonds would kill my sister since she has a nut allergy. Eating almonds is thus bad for her, but good for me since I am not allergic to them and the protein gives me sustenance. In order to stay alive, I need either to grow and harvest almonds or to work so as to make enough money to buy almonds from someone who grows them. Productiveness is thus a virtue that serves one’s rational self-interest. Rand is clear that productive work can be pursued in any field and to whatever level of ability an individual possesses (“The Objectivist Ethics,” pp. 15-27; “What Is Capitalism?” pp. 16-17).
While man’s mind is the fundamental source of wealth, it takes additional factors to convert ideas into products, jobs, and a successful livelihood. Those factors are entrepreneurship, markets, and merit. As Rowe states in the acknowledgments section of Profoundly Disconnected, “without entrepreneurial risk, no new job would ever get created” (p. ix). He goes on to offer special nods both to “those who do the job” and to “those who create the job” (p. ix). In an environment often hostile to business, the latter group often fails to get due credit (Profoundly Disconnected, p. 57).
Individuals can come up with all kinds of intriguing, even path-breaking, ideas that they would love to make millions from. However, without markets where others are willing to pay for the products created by those ideas, they shall go unremunerated. Responding to a critic of so-called “bad jobs” like those depicted on “Dirty Jobs” or offered at Walmart, Rowe sarcastically remarks: “The world is full of well-intentioned people who believe that prices, wages, and rents should have nothing to do with pesky things like supply and demand” (Profoundly Disconnected, p. 101). Elsewhere, in response to a question about “good jobs” and a “living wage,” he says that there is no such thing as a “good job” or “bad job,” but different kinds of honest work: “Some jobs pay better, some jobs smell better, and some jobs have no business being treated like careers. But work is never the enemy, regardless of the wage. Because somewhere between the job and the paycheck, there’s still a thing called opportunity, and that’s what people need to pursue” (Facebook post, 2/5/2015). His remarks on this issue show that he appreciates a market system where labor and the cost of living result from freely made choices on the part of consumers who make selections from among wares created by producers. No particular outcome on either the supply or the demand side is guaranteed.
The entrepreneurs who end up succeeding in a market system are those whom Rowe describes as “passionate” about their work, although they often hadn’t “followed their bliss.” More important to them than pursuing any specific vocation was having an entrepreneurial attitude toward work and commitment to an ethic of hard work: “What they did was step back from the crowd and watch carefully to see where everyone else was going. Then, they simply went the other way. They followed the available opportunities—not their passion—and built a balanced life around the willingness to do a job that nobody else wanted” (Profoundly Disconnected, p. 56). Such individuals merit their success on account of their skills, virtues, and the good fortune of having enough people who value and buy what they produce.
Rand says a great deal about entrepreneurship and markets, capitalism and business, but a brief summary will have to suffice for showing how similar her view is to Rowe’s. Rand argues that it is the producers to whom civilization is indebted, for it is they who had the vision and took the risk to create new things with the possibility that they would fail. In order to do this, they needed the freedom to think, act, and bear the consequences of their actions. This is how Rand morally justifies capitalism. The basic individual right is the right to life, and the right to property is the way to respect and protect the right to one’s life. Being free from force and fraud allows one to use the knowledge acquired through the rational use of one’s mind. In this way, it becomes open to us to make the effort to obtain the material and spiritual values in the world we need in order to flourish (“The Objectivist Ethics,” pp. 31-33; “What Is Capitalism?” pp. 18-19).
“Somebody’s gotta do it.” And that somebody is you—you and me and every single one of us. Fundamentally, this motto applies to the living of one’s own life, and it most immediately applies to achieving the material requirements of one’s living. Both Rowe and Rand understand this deep insight. Each has succeeded in conveying it through different media. Together, their work offers powerful guidance for individuals to effect positive personal, cultural, and political change.
Carrie-Ann Biondi is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Marymount Manhattan College, NYC. She holds a BA and MA in American Studies and an MA and PhD in Philosophy. Her research interests include citizenship theory, consent theory and political obligation, patriotism, virtue ethics, children’s rights, and Socratic pedagogy. She has over fifteen years of experience in professional editing, and is Co-Editor-in-Chief (with Shawn Klein) of Reason Papers.
Rand, Ayn, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: New American Library, 1964), pp. 13-35.
Rand, Ayn, “What Is Capitalism?” in Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: New American Library, 1966), pp. 11-34.
Rowe, Mike, Facebook, posts from January-February, 2015.
Rowe, Mike, Profoundly Disconnected (Peoria, IL: Simantel, 2014).
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