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Thoughts on Ayn Rand’s continuing influence

Like a critical, if at times exasperated admirer of the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, I am interested to read books by people who are sharply critical of her work because it is a sign, as far as I can see, that she is starting to attract proper, scholarly attention. That is surely better than blind hatred or for that matter, Randroid hero-worship.

Hence I was quite intrigued when I came across the book, entitled “Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature.” Unfortunately, as this review of it at Amazon demonstrates, the author of the book mirrors a trait of the woman he criticises in one key respect: he writes in a state of furious anger and sarcasm, whiich rather undermines his own effort to take her arguments apart. Rand, for sure, was an angry writer – she had a lot to be angry about – but she was often guilty of abrupt dismissals of philosophers one might regard as giants or at least want to consider more gently: David Hume, for instance. And some of her judgements on aesthetic matters make me rub my eyes in amazement. For example, she regarded Beethoven as “malevolent”, which is a pretty bizarre comment on the creator of “Ode To Joy”, about as unmalevolent bit of music you can ever hear.

But the fact is that in my mind, much of what she stood for and argued about is as relevant and useful now as it was half a century ago. Her impact on driving a libertarian movement, even if she spurned the term, cannot be denied. On art, for example, I find a lot of her ideas very fruitful in explaining why I respond to some works of art and cannot abide some others. I like the way that she understood, for example, the appeal of so-called “bootleg romantic” culture such as pulp thrillers and popular action film heroes and heroines. I think she played an important role in invigorating the Aristotelian tradition in philosophy and has encouraged me to follow this up by reading writers such as Henry Veatch and these fellows. Meanwhile, I keep coming across references from people saying that the present credit crisis and the governments’ response to it is something out of Atlas Shrugged. So it clearly annoys leftists that she is still cited in this fashion. The fact that Rand is part of the current intellectual conversation is one reason why I am not quite as gloomy about the state of affairs in this world than I might otherwise have been. Let’s face it, had one of her former acolytes, Alan Greenspan, stuck to his early disdain for central banking before he became part of the system, we might not be in this mess today.

This blog looks pretty interesting for critical fans of Rand.

25 comments to Thoughts on Ayn Rand’s continuing influence

  • Let’s face it, had one of her former acolytes, Alan Greenspan, stuck to his early disdain for central banking before he became part of the system, we might not be in this mess today.

    I doubt it. Had he not become part of the system, someone else would have filled that spot, and could even have been a worse disaster (which I am guessing is possible). I concede though one real damage that is unique to a “free market guru” such as him: he has done much more to ruin the reputation of free markets than could someone who didn’t have such “free marketeer” credentials.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Alisa, indeed. The problem is that leftists are going around saying that “look what sort of rubbish Rand wrote because of how her follower, A. Greenspan, messed up at the Fed”.

    Which is precisely why we need to keep banging home the point that what has happened is not the fault of laissez faire capitalism.

  • Frederick Davies

    “Ode To Joy”, about as unmalevolent bit of music you can ever hear

    Until the EU started using it as their hymn, that is.

  • On my more hopeful days, it occurs to me that Greenspan might be a saboteur, rather than an apostate.

    I have an image of him going to work every day, and saying “I shall do exactly as I am asked. I shall do it with enthusiasm and zeal. And when I am done, the American monetary system will be so broken that all the King’s horces and all the King’s men will not be able to put it together again, and they shall *have* to revert to a commodity standard.

    Of course, if they do so, they can also oblitterate the “national debt” by simplly printing, on the last day of paper dollar production, 20 or 30 “one trillion dollar” bills and mailing the results to our creditors, with an invitation to “keep the change”, and a note that they might want to hold on to the paper, because it may be worth something to collectors one day.

    Of course, this would have to be after a competing currency was in common use in America. Perhaps they could ramp up the competing currency to ceasing taxation, and simply printing dollars to pay government bills, until people were *forced* into the GrAg or GrAu in self defense, and the cost of printing more dollars exceeded their value.

    Ah, but a man’s reach *should* exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

  • jk

    I too am torn about Ms. Rand. The best ultimate defense I ever read was in Brian Dougherty’s Radicals for Capitalism:

    For books like Ellis’s, Nathaniel Branden had a response: Rarely do Rand’s attackers deign “publicly to name the essential ideas of Atlas Shrugged and attempt to refute them. No one has been willing to declare: ‘Ayn Rand holds that man must choose his values and actions exclusively by reason, that man has the right to exist for his own sake, that no one has the right to seek values from others by physical force–and I consider such ideas wrong, evil and socially dangerous.'”

  • Frederick Davies

    Rather than talk about the ideas of Ayn Rand, and how they are influential or otherwise, in the theoretical world of book reviews and intellectuals, why not read about it live and raw:

    An American businessman’s letter to Obama(Link)

    If you do not see the Atlas Shrugged similarities in that letter, you have not really understood the book.

  • mike

    Perhaps you could be the first to review that book (Liberty & Nature) on Amazon, Jonathan.

    I recently found Chris Matthew Sciabarra’s book ‘The Russian Radical’ to be very enlightening and so I loaned it out to a [hopefully recovering] Republican friend of mine.

    “…she was often guilty of abrupt dismissals of philosophers one might regard as giants or at least want to consider more gently: David Hume, for instance.”

    So what? That is nothing more than a distaste for her manner, rather than a substantial criticism.

    Rich Paul: the real goal is to get the state out of the business of issuing currency. A market of competing currencies would abolish the need for monetary policy.

  • My God, what a terrible writer she was! Nevertheless, she brought some absolutely vital ideas into the public consciousness. I read her when I was in high school, and it was an antidote to the leftist crap that was being jammed down my throat. My kids are going straight to Hayek and von Mises.

  • Paul Marks

    I am astonished that no one has mentioned that Ayn Rand turned against Alan Greenspan (many years ago) and it was not on personal grounds – it was on policy grounds.

    Indeed Rand shoved her dinner plate into his face.

    The leftist saying “Greenspan is a follower of Rand” are talking nonsense.

    Rand never used the word “libertarian” in a favourable political sense – although the lady did use the word in the sense of being opposed to determinism, Rand disliked political libertarians because so many of them, she believed, were relativitists and subjectivists.

    Sadly if Greenspan is a “libertarian” (something he has called himself) then Rand was right – but I deny that Greenspan is a political libertarian.

    I person can call himself anything – I can call myself the King of Siam, it does not mean I am the King of Siam.

    What the left are ignoring is that Austrian school people (libertarian and nonlibertarian) have been denouncing the policy of increasing the money supply (this hidden government subsidy of the finanicial elite) for almost A CENTURY.

    And Alan Greenspan is an extreme case – he (on this) was much worse than Paul V. (who was not much good himself). And such groups as the Ludwig Von Mises Institute published vast numbers of attacks upon Greenspan – years before the bust.

    One can not hand out endless subsidies and, truthfully call oneself a libertarian.

    Not if words have any objective meanings.

    Nor was Greenspan doing it to smash the state (or whatever) – he did it because he believed that every time there was problem in the financial markets the money supply should be increased.

    He did (does) not understand that delays the problem – but MAKES IT BIGGER.

    Shoving a plate in his face violates the nonaggression principle – but……

    As for Ayn Rand – the subject of the post.

    What has a conservative minded (and nonathiest) libertarian like me got to say about the lady.

    Two things:

    Ayn Rand was a very good writer.


    Ayn Rand was normally (although not always) correct.

    Well three things.

    The third being that Ayn Rand did thousands of times good bringing people to the cause of liberty than me or anyone else on this site.

    What more do people want to know?

  • mike

    Oh yes – I agree with every word of Paul Marks’ comment.

    Back to Jonathan’s topic: I don’t have the link or file available right now, since I am not using my own computer, but I recall reading quite recently a critical article on Ayn Rand’s ethics – specifically regarding the ‘is/ought’ difference of which Hume is partly famous for.

    Briefly, Hume argues that there can be no naturalist ethics – i.e. an ethics derived from nature (and which, consequently, would have an objective basis). In other words, the logical derivation of any ‘ought’ statement must lie in another ‘ought’ statement and not an ‘is’ statement. To say it another way still, values cannot be logically derived from facts alone – but must always be derived from other values.

    Ayn Rand disputes Hume’s argument. She believes that ethics is logically derived from nature, i.e. that an ‘ought’ statement can be derived from an ‘is’ statement. Specifically, she argues that any and every ‘ought’ statement cannot make any sense without the prior concept of ‘life’ and as such, all ethics must derive from the fact of our being alive. What does right or wrong matter to you when you are dead, and how would you know, being dead, what was happening anyway?


    Ayn Rand: “The man ought to eat food, because he is a living creature.”

    David Hume: “The man ought to eat food because he ought to stay alive.”

    Note that Hume’s statement is question-begging: why is it that the man ought to stay alive?

    The author of the article I mentioned claims that Rand’s argument pre-supposes and cannot escape the secondary ‘ought’ clause in Hume’s argument. He presses the point by considering just that question above of why a man ought not to choose death, for example by dying in some kind of fight or battle to protect a ‘higher’ value (e.g. his children, or his nation).

    So, according to the author, Rand’s position either condemns such a choice of death as immoral, or otherwise that her position ultimately collapses into that of Hume.

    The Randian response to this assertion is that it is based on an inadequate understanding of what a human being is. For Rand it is not enough that a human being merely survive at the cost of any and all other values besides survival (such as the murder of one’s family), because those values contribute to our constitution and identity as human beings. To put that differently, we would not be human beings were we to allow the destruction of such values. To put it differently still, existence requires identity.

    I agree with Paul Marks – Ayn Rand seems to have been right on most things.

  • mike

    Since I’m hanging around with time on my hands…

    Rand’s influence is almost certainly zero in the places where such influence would really count in the short to medium term.

    In the longer term however, her influence among places like samizdata is what it is because her work has such a general scope of relevance to all areas of society, but at the same time, offers as wide a window as possible from which to see this.

    Unlike Rand, however, the windows offered by Hayek and Von Mises are the narrower windows of economics and the design of financial institutions. Is Rand more influential than either of these authors? Paul Marks’ comment above about the Austrians banging on about the money supply for a hundred bloody years without anyone listening to them might seem to suggest so, but I’m not sure.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Mike, your point about Rand and the whole is/ought issue is very well taken.

  • guy herbert

    Whoever it is compares the current crisis to Atlas Shrugged can only be doing it to annoy lefties. It has no other merit. The banks are now refusing to lend money into the real economy, not because they are fed up of being told what to do by unproductive drones, but because they are scared bureaucrats who want everyone else to take the risk.

  • Paul, re Greenspan didn’t/doesn’t understand: I find it impossible to believe. I can easily believe this about some politician, but not someone with a background of Greenspan. I strongly suspect his is a case of someone choosing to believe (deceiving himself well before deceiving others) what is convenient, against his better judgment. All of us are doing it all the time (we make choices that we know deep down are not good for us, and rationalize it to ourselves as well as those around us). It’s just that very few of us are in a position of such power and influence for this to become such a huge problem.

  • michael farris

    The problem with approaching Rand as a novelist is that she was a propogandist (and not a very subtle one).

    As a writer (leaving aside the question of the merits of her philosophy) she had a deft hand at plot construction (with a penchant toward the [shocking] reversal I’m a sucker for).

    She could set evocative scenes well and her descriptions of places (before her archetypical characters start striding or squirming around in them blocking the view) could be masterful.

    Her weakest point was characterization and that only got weaker the more her philosophy took over her writing. There’s too much telling not enough showing (and even when she does show, she’s already told and will tell again lest anyone miss The Point). There’s a lot of the humanitarian who doesn’t much like real people in her approach to her characters. (she apparently found real business people and industrialists kind of boring)

  • mike

    You’re welcome Jonathan! Perhaps you’ll take another…

    Having just re-read your article and followed the link to ‘Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature’, I have a few more comments to make…

    The very title ‘Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature’ ought to be a warning that this is not a serious book. It is a play on the title of Nietzsche’s book Nietzsche Contra Wagner and as such would seem to be a shout for attention in a crowded market. It may not even be just a a marketing gimmick – any public association of Ayn Rand with Nietzsche is probably not going to do any good for Objectivism, given the continued intellectual abuse of Nietzsche by the ‘special’ sciences (and given Nietzsche’s own peculiarities of style). At any rate, the reviewers seem to confirm that the book is not quite as serious and scholarly as it is made out to be – Nyquist apparently seems more interested in Rand’s ‘hidden motives’ and the like than in the content of her philosophy.

    More generally, I wonder how the sales figures for Rand’s books look like when plotted over time. Although twenty million copies of her novels have been sold, nearly one million of those sales occurred in 2007 alone. Has she become more widely read since the advent of the web? How many of the new people who read her every year are the sort of people for whom the term ‘objective’ is practically a swear word? (I am of course referring again to those in the ‘special’ sciences departments of the Universities). I’ll bet right now that we’ll be seeing more and more of these smears of Rand veiled as ‘scholarly attention’ in the years to come.

  • William H. Stoddard

    Paul Marks:

    I think you’re missing the point about comparisons of the current economic situation to that in Atlas Shrugged. When I make that comparison, I’m not thinking of the large financial institutions and their executives as the heroic Randian businessmen who are on the verge of going on strike. I’m thinking of them as the villainous Randian businessmen who are desperately running to the government for subsidies and for regulations that stick it to their better run competitors.

    For all Rand’s reputation for a fanatical defender of “big business,” Atlas Shrugged gives us a brilliantly accurate portrayal of what the Virginia school called “rent-seeking” and of the type of businesses that benefit from it. And THAT is all the more relevant now, in the current financial mess.

  • Old Hoya

    I am not sure that Henry Veatch and Ayn Rand mix all that well….

    I had the privilege of taking courses in metaphysics and ethics from Veatch. He was the best teacher I have ever seen.

    Later I recognized that my law school professors were faking the Socratic method because I had experienced the real thing–Veatch actually deployed it brilliantly in every class.

    His energy, brilliance and grace were astounding. He could extract useful nuggets from the dullest student response and treated everyone with more respect than seemed warranted.

    I also learned that what makes a great teacher is not how well he presents the material but how well he inspires the questions for which that material is a way to the answer.

    In sorry contrast, the conclusory, politicized and intellectually and morally bankrupt nature of the modern American college experience is a greater threat to our well-being than Al Qaeda could ever hope to be….

  • William H. Stoddard

    My mistake: I see that my previous post ought to have been addressed to Guy, not Paul. Sorry about the confusion!

  • Eric

    Whoever it is compares the current crisis to Atlas Shrugged can only be doing it to annoy lefties.

    Reason enough for me.

  • Midwesterner

    In the early ’80s, I was a geek (official jt “Senior Systems Analyst/Programmer) for a 3rd world relief and development nonprofit. I quit in a situation that would not have been out of place in an Ayn Rand novel. I moved to a farm in Wisconsin and spent a summer reading everything I could find. I had been warned by a friend that there was a book “Atlas Shrugged” that laid out a plot to take over the world. It was supposed to be some kind of a bad guy hand book. No. Fairly obviously my friend hadn’t read it. I did read it, realized that I was in fact on strike and, since then, spent the time living minimally and doing a lot of thinking.

    The thing about Atlas Shrugged that made it such a pivotal moment in my life is that, on a piece by piece basis, I knew every thing she said already. I had observed it throughout my life and known that at some level the behavior I was witnessing made sense. But reading the book was liking working a complicated jigsaw puzzle, hitting a wall when you have many pieces assembled but can’t see the whole picture and finally getting a peek at the picture on the box. Everything fit, I didn’t have to take her word for it, I already knew it to be true. I just needed the rough outline to suggest where the pieces went to complete the picture.

    mike at October 30, 2008 06:08 AM, when you are back to your own computer can you post a link to that article (if the thread is still open)? It definitely sounds interesting.

  • Paul Marks: […]disliked political libertarians because so many of them, she believed, were relativitists and subjectivists.

    I think she’d be correct in her belief, and a lot of that would also seem to fall in step with isolationist Libertarians.

  • mike

    Sure Midwesterner – google ‘Ayn Rand and the Is/Ought Problem’ and hit the first link at the top of the page to download the PDF. His article does attempt a scholarly critique of Rand’s ethics, but I didn’t think much of it to be honest – especially after supplementing my Ayn Rand reading with a book called “Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical” by this guy.

  • Paul Marks

    The nature of man (as a reasoning agent) is at the heart of the Ayn Rand’s position.

    It is an openly Aristotelian position – but then I think that is a good thing.

    And, of course, it is relevant to economics.

    The German Historical school invented the name “Austrian Economics” not just to point at the Empire of the Hapsburgs – but more to point at the Aristotelian philosophy that was still taught there.

    Carl Menger got his philosophical ideas from Aristotelians.

    Humans are agents – they are capable of agency (“free will”).

    The physical universe objectively exists.

    A theory has to make sense to be true – “make sense” as in obey the laws of logical reasoning.

    All of this is Aristotelian.

    Although it is also to be found in the Scottish Common Sense school – that once dominated American universities (in better days).

    To give a “practical example”.

    Such things as modern banking violate the laws of logical reasoning (for example by lending out more money than comes in real savings).

    People who regard Aristotelian laws of reasoning as “simplisitic” have no problem with this – but they are wrong.

  • Paul Marks

    Of course Aristotelian is not the same thing as agreeing with everything that Aristotle said.

    For example that goats breathed via their ears, or that the universe was made of four elements, or that trade (including trade in money) was low.

    Although one must be trading in goods that really exist – not selling someone a bucket of figs that has no figs in it. Or lending out a bag of money that turns out to be an empty bag.