Ayn Rand is one of the most influential authors of American thought in the late twentieth century. It’s hard to find any college educated person under 40 years old who hasn’t had at least a brush with her works and the philosophy of Objectivism. This is fascinating given how little serious critical attention has been paid to her work and how largely unknown it is in other nations. She is the leader of a strong but underground movement, highly cultural and generational.
Rand finally bubbled into parts of the mainstream with the arrival of Paul Ryan, a one-time advocate of her work who advised staffers to read up on their Rand when he was a young congressman. His later disavowal of Rand’s philosophy smelled like a rat to some, who wanted to make an issue out of it. Bad move. Rand and Objectivism do not lend themselves to sound bites or anything remotely simple. The enticement of this mind candy is strong and deep. But what is it?
It would never make sense to speak of Rand without being at least somewhat personal, given the nature of her philosophy. I was attracted to Libertarianism as a young man, and still proudly talk of that streak when cornered to describe my political bent. But reading The Fountainhead frankly put me off both modern architecture and all things Objectivist forever. It seemed terribly cold, sterile, and simply not much fun. But the attraction remains strong, especially for young men, because it stresses the importance of achievement and reason.
Here is how Rand herself described Objectivism in 1962, trimmed down a lot:
1. Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
3. Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit.
That’s what it’s all about with the speechifying and sex scenes bordering on rape that dominate her popular fiction. The flaws stand out immediately.
This definition of reason is simply wrong on so many levels. Humans survive with a combination of cunning and instinct, an ability to formulate a plan as well as a gut that reacts to danger. The idea that the head alone can or even should rule our actions is ludicrous – it removes everything that is fun or heartwarming or sexy from our lives. But it’s also simply wrong in a very fundamental way. A complete human has an ongoing conversation within themselves between heart and brain that guides all action.
Where this gets even more strange is the idea that self interest is the “highest moral purpose in life”. You can see the appeal to young men here – strong minds and arms ready to go forth and achieve great things in life. But morality itself is inherently a social concept – a value agreed upon as a way of organizing things. There’s a complete dichotomy inherent in this statement that makes no sense if you think about it long enough.
The fourth point I actually tend to agree with – after realizing that a free market where everyone has equal access and can perform to the best of their skills is often an abstract ideal. Change that from “capitalism”, where money finds its own way, to a people based system centered on skills and desires, and I’m with you.
Generally, the philosophy of Rand is both an expression and a reaction to Existentialism, the belief that all philosophy starts with the personal perspective and radiates out from the individual. Objectivism is little more than an American version taken to an extreme.
This ignores much of the appeal of Rand, however, because our selfish world desires a guiding philosophy. The power of Objectivism comes when it validates what people already feel – screw what others say is “moral”, I have my own way!
Most rejections of Rand are based on either the outcome of her philosophy or the stilted writing style that marks her fiction. It’s much easier to find that there are some serious problems right at the core and move on. Paul Ryan apparently did, as do most people who are attracted to Objectivism.