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I came across a letter I wrote to a friend last year who inquired about the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and thought I’d repost excerpts of the philosophical content below:

[I had to laugh when I got your message–I was in church of all places.  Next question: what was I doing looking at my phone in church and committing digital blasphemy? Answer: obnoxiously long Catholic ceremony. The supreme irony is that Rand’s most recent notoriety in American culture is Paul Ryan–a, well, “severe” Catholic–a big Rand fan.

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About Rand. Let me take your questions one at a time, but let me be blunt: I think Rand’s philosophy is ludicrous–it is an attractive and interesting philosophy embraced with zeal by adolescents (including high-school me!) first starting to think for themselves, but when touted as a philosophy of life, or as a serious platform for political economy, it is dangerous, historically uninformed, and morally abhorrent. Hopefully my responses to your questions will convey why I think this.

“What is your opinion on Ayn Rand’s works (the Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged)?

The books are intrigueing as far as philosophical novels go. But I tend to think that philosophical novels rarely work (Lao Tsu: “if you chase two rabbits, both get away”). Her characters are mainly archetypes for big broad vague ideals like “individualism” and “collectivism,” and her view of gender roles is strange and obviously masculinist. There is no doubt something seductive and inspiring in her aesthetic–the free thinking individual forging his way through the world by the lights of reason and imagination, everyone a little Apollo burning with the bright fire of creation, who will not compromise his values for anything. This stabbing westward individualism is one reason Rand’s books have sold so well in American culture. Add to that that she’s writing during the Cold War, and it’s like pouring kerosene on a healthy fire (Rand emigrated from Russia as a child, as you probably know, moving to Cali and marrying a Hollywood producer–it’s always tricky reducing a thinker’s thought to her life story, but with Rand it’s hard to resist; she went from collectivist hell to individualist heaven). It’s sort of Clint Eastwood meets Rockefeller. The problem is that the characters are demigods, not humans. There is simply the elite pantheon of world-historical entrepreneurs just burning to innovate and create and build and so on, and the nasty, resentful elites–government, “collectivists,” etc–holding them back. It’s a very simplistic and dualistic view of how human conflict, motivation, and intercourse actually work, and a silly view, I think, about the real sources of evil in the world.

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“What about her ideas, and the ideologies she supported (the aristotle-like pursuit of reason above all things and rejection of faith and religious beliefs)?”

A problem with Rand’s atheism is how dogmatic and, well, religious she was about it (in my view, the only sane atheists are Buddhists). Indeed, the cult-like aura that accrued around her and that she cultivated, her “followers” who called themselves–you cannot make this up–“the collective,” as well as the “tenet”-like way that Objectivism is sometimes stated, raises eyebrows about just how rational the philosophy is. I think her staunch empiricism and faith in the explanatory power of science–which denies values are in the world–may be hard to reconcile with her aesthetics and her value system, but I’m not sure about this; would have to read more. I do think that her view of the role and negative effects of religion throughout history is distorted and false (she is channeling a particular view of what Nietzsche thought, but it’s a more reductive view of religion and myth than N. actually embraced).

“How about ethical egoism?”

This is one of the hardest of her theories to swallow. First, I think we have plenty of empirical evidence that those who singlemindedly pursue their self-interest are not the happiest, or at least not those that flourish the most. Second, if one asks WHY we should be egoists, and the reply is that that leads to a better quality of life for everyone, then the reason for being an egoist is not egoistic–it is altruistic or utilitarian or something else. Third, as an explanation for human behavior–that people just ARE egoistic–I think it is reductive and false. Doing what’s in one’s best interest need not be mutually exclusive with looking out for others, nor is there reason to think it is always or even usually the main motive.

“What about individualism and laissez-faire capitalism?”

Like many libertarian approaches, Rand believes in a fantastical and false view of how markets actually operate, and actually can operate. She seizes on an undeniable truth: that a free market is the most efficient allocator of resources and producer of goods and services, the best engine of wealth creation and prosperity, that humans have yet devised–and then draws the wrong inferences from it. In treating the state as the necessary adversary of the individual and free enterprise, Rand’s polis is one in which there is no foreign policy, no international scene. Again, fantasy–and as even she concedes, the pure capitalism has not yet happened; her error is in thinking that it is possible or desirable. It took a very particular set of conditions to bring about the unprecedented economic growth seen in the U.S. after WWII–only through the supportive matrix of government can the private sector work its magic. By so irrationally attacking the state that makes possible the prosperity and freedom she rightly values, Rand is cutting off the branch on which she sits. In the health care debates a couple of years ago, this manifested as “get your government hands off my medicare.” Sorry to rant, but it’s what I can’t stand about (some) libertarians.  William F. Buckley was unforgiving:

Lastly, I think one of the great ironies of Rand’s view–often touted as “rational” and “realist”–is that it is actually a sorry kind of idealism. Her atheism and suspicion of collective organizations is grounded in a kind of “empiricism,” but she is hardly empirical when it comes to the stuff of life; there is little, in her novels or her philosophy, that gives you a feel for what it is like, as David Foster Wallace put it, to be a fucking human being. This cold, sterile view I take as a sign that Rand was deeply afraid of intimacy and blind to the dependence, vulnerability, and weakness involved in being human. We tend to think that egoists are “realists,” pointing to the brute motivation behind others’ behavior. But it turns out you have to disregard a lot to cling to the egoist thesis.

“What about no welfare state?”

No welfare state. One can debate the extent to which welfare makes others dependent and lazy (however, if Rand is correct that we will do whatever we can to maximize our self-interest, then it doesn’t seem consistent to claim that welfare recipients will just laze about), however, you can refute this from a purely economic standpoint. The shift in the 30s was toward Keynesian economics: government spending to boost demand by pumping money into the economy, through food stamps, unemployment insurance, and yes, programs for the poor. If not, you get increased crime and homelessness, and fewer people greasing the economy by spending money. You can’t self-actualize and be a creator if you can’t get basic healthcare, food, and a roof over your head. Rand is also blind to the exploitative nature of capitalism–you don’t need to be a Marxist to acknowledge that the principle of creative destruction dictates that the system requires a periphery, a ragged underbelly–and society alleviates this destruction, cushions the fall, through social programs; again, for economic reasons, not just moral ones.  That is why Rand is actually not a conservative, though her views tend to be popular among those who call themselves such (and among pre-political adolescents who don’t know anything, an overlap in beliefs that I doubt is a coincidence).]

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But Rand’s works continue to be popular, and have enjoyed a recent spike in popularity, I think, because of forces found both at the heart of American culture and at the forefront of our new technopolis.  Silicon Valley libertarians, with their Prophet Ray Kurzweil and Patron Saint Steve of House Jobs, are very much setting the tone of our popular economic culture, and fostering the illusion among many Americans that they can Innovate and Code and Start-Up their way to prosperity.