Libertarian History/Philosophy

Reason Writers Around Town: Shikha Dalmia on Ayn Rand at Forbes

|

In her latest Forbes column, Reason Foundation Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia takes a look at Ayn Rand's legacy. People read Rand when they are young and are deeply moved, Dalmia notes, only to outgrow her by mid-life. This has profound and unfortunate political consequences, Dalmia writes, because it becomes "difficult to build a strong and growing anti-government movement based solely on Rand's philosophy, when the older cohort of her followers is falling off on a regular basis."

But why is it that Rand's appeal wears out? Is it because most readers are irrational and weak, as Rand's followers believe? Or is there something missing in Rand's message?

Read the whole column here to find out.

NEXT: Rand Paul Takes Polling Lead

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I’m voting for irrational weakness caused by children.

  2. People learn to benefit from the system. I don’t want you removing the tax deduction on mortgages *after* I have one.

  3. Reason is on quite a Rand bender. I think there have been more Rand posts in the past month than in the previous five years combined.

  4. David Cameron, the leader of the conservative party in the UK always uses the quote that “a consevative is a libertarian with children”

  5. Dalima on Rand action now? Where is the video!

  6. Now that I have actually RTFA, I think that Dalima does get to an interesting point when she brings up Randians not opening a homeless shelter to aid the jobless and homeless. The prevailing assumption is that the best way to help those that are jobless and homeless is to simply give them food and shelter until they get back on their feet. I think the reason the Randian wouldn’t open a shelter is because they would start a business to give the jobless a job and another would build some houses for the newly employed to buy. Sure they would probably phrase their actions a little differently, but in the end the unemployed are employed and homes are built in which people can live. But that doesn’t fit into an altruistic framework very well.

    1. Sure they would probably phrase their actions a little differently, but in the end the unemployed are employed and homes are built in which people can live. But that doesn’t fit into an altruistic framework very well.

      Considering that Objectivists think altruism (as they narrowly define it) is the ultimate evil, why would they engage in it? Why would they staff a soup kitchen to hand out food to strangers, when their ethical code says you should only help people you care about, whose happiness contributes to your happiness?

      1. I’ll take a shot at answering this. Maybe because helping other people brings the person happiness. I don’t get the argument that objectivist are against altruism. Maybe I’ve misinterpreted it but i’ve seen it as a rejection of collective altruism, not individual. In other words the evil is not the individual helping other people out by their choice but the more productive portion of society being forced to support the less productive.

        1. That’s my interpretation of it as well. Rand was saying that it’s not wrong to help someone. It’s wrong to be forced to help someone.

          1. I don’t know if she would completely forbid helping someone. But I think she would likely narrow it down to only a few exceptional cases, such as children or lovers.

            She obviously frowns on Rearden giving money to his deadbeat brother (which is then used against him).

            1. She frowned on Rearden giving money to his *deadbeat* brother, who was not only a deadbeat but an ungrateful, sniping, hateful one at that. She certainly didn’t frown on people helping others, since she did it herself all through her life. Altruism is not just helping others, though, it’s the principle that our moral worth is defined by whether we help others or not. That is what she opposed.

        2. That’s pretty much why I said they would phrase it differently. It really isn’t altruism even though most people would call it such. The objectivist that engaged in an act that was seemingly altruistic would actually be performing this act because they value the feelings generated by the action more than the negative. In the end the net value is positive and therefore in there self interest. This is really more of a Misesian take on seemingly altruistic human action and I’m not enough of a Rand scholar to know whether she would have bought the argument, but I think it is a good one.

  7. I’m always amused by the degree to which many libertarians wring their hands over Rand. She wrote FICTION, people! The whole point of fiction is to provoke and inspire. If it upsets you that she was a flawed human being or that there are obvious weaknesses in her theories, I would say it’s your fault for being upset.

    I read and enjoyed “Atlas” when I was younger: to me, it’s a great “think big about yourself and what you have to offer” story. But that’s all. If libertarianism is going to succeed as a societal movement, it’s going to take a lot more than a bunch of people fleetingly inspired by a book.

    1. I like her books to. It is her followers I can do without.

    2. “She wrote FICTION, people!”

      Oh, my bad. I heard somewhere that she wrote non-fiction works too. Maybe that was an internet hoax. Or maybe a work of philosophy by Rand was quoted in some article. Anyway, thanks to your illuminating comment, I can now see the true path!

    3. Do you mean something like Rothbard and Mises? It is a pretty small step from Rand to the above. Those are pretty good arguments even if Rothbard’s anarchism makes him an easy target.

    4. She wrote FICTION, people!

      Her works of fiction are but a fraction of her output. I’d recommend the essays to anyone who enjoyed the novels and plays.

  8. “Surely, if she had witnessed the events of last year–the government bailout of banks, the takeover of auto companies, the looming socialization of health care–she’d be wondering where she went wrong. Or, to use her lingo, she’d be “checking her premises.””

    No, she wouldn’t be. While I can find good things to say about Rand, I do not believe for a moment that the sort of ruthless introspection required to do this would have been within her abilities. To judge by the many Randroids I’ve met, Rand would likely take the view that everyone else (especially he followers) had just got it wrong.

    To be a truly transformative individual requires acting against your own interest sometimes. Could a bunch of people only looking out for themselves and their own immediate benefit really work as a team towards a common goal?

    1. You’ve obviously misunderstood Objectivism. It’s not about short term hedonism or blind selfishness. It’s rational self interest, which is necessarily long term, and often involves working closely with others. And what on Earth is a Randroid?? I keep seeing this everywhere and I don’t get it. Is it just someone who repeats, line for line, quote for quote, what Rand said? Cos if it is, I hate them too, but I also hate Kant-roids, Plato-roids, Obama-roids and so on…You can’t just say it’s Rand followers who do that, because everyone else is guilty of it too.

      1. In essence you are correct. I have read much of what Rand has wrote and the people I know as Randroids are those who repeat the catchphrases (and likely just skimmed through to the speeches) without understanding what they’re saying. They are hedonistic and self-indulgent and if caled on it they ramble some platitude or another (usually something like “it’s good to be selfish” or “greed is good, Ayn Rand says so!”

        And yes, you don’t need to be a Rand reader to be a drone.

    2. To be a truly transformative individual requires acting against your own interest sometimes.

      Hmmm.

      In what way(s)? Can you give examples?

      Maybe you’re right but I’m not seeing how this line of logic you’re suggesting really plays out.

  9. The gist of Dalmia’s argument is that the thing missing from Rand’s philosophy is a leavening dose of the altruism and self-sacrifice that Rand considered the ultimate evil, the notion that if you just compromise a little bit on your principles, those watered-down principles can become popular.

    Which, if you’ve actually read “The Fountainhead”, is precisely the tactic the collectivists use to try and destroy the protagonist.

    1. Haha OMG you really HAVEN’T understood Rand. Do you compromise with evil? No. If I said the Earth was round 1000 years ago, and everyone said – No, it’s flat. Would me saying “Well ok, it’s kind of flat, but also has this slight curve to it…nah just forget it, it’s flat yeah” change the fact that it is actually round?? You may not like that rational self interest is the best way to live, or that capitalism is the only moral economic and political system, but compromising, or making the points “softer” won’t change the fact.

  10. Ayn Rand’s books are great for getting teenagers to hate government. They sure as shit worked for me. I have trouble understanding why people assign more importance to them than that, though.

    1. Now if we could just get more adults exposed to their city’s Building Departments they would probably hate government too.

  11. To be a truly transformative individual requires acting against your own interest sometimes. Could a bunch of people only looking out for themselves and their own immediate benefit really work as a team towards a common goal?

    Ayn Rand is clearly a transformative person who never knowingly acted against her perceived self-interest, so that first sentence is objectively wrong.

    As for the second sentence: Nice strawman, Susan. Objectivists don’t look out for their “immediate” interests, they look out for what benefits them in the long run.

    1. And I’m going to guess that the Reason staff would be a reasonable approximation of such a team of individualists working toward a common goal.

    2. With the US on the brink of socialism what has Rand transformed? And with the state of business in the US (with so many captains of industry “inspired” by Rand) who has been looking long term?

      1. She has transformed individuals. She has not transformed the majority of the electorate and certainly not the short-sighted people you mention who have fucked up major companies.

        You’re blaming her for the people who haven’t heeded her.

      2. Ayn Rand was one of a few writers who transformed me, for example. Atlas Shrugged was like a blast furnace. It challenged everything I believed, and though there’s plenty about Rand that I don’t like, my divergent views are all stronger for the challenge.

  12. Quoth Monolith:
    David Cameron, the leader of the conservative party in the UK always uses the quote that “a conservative is a libertarian with children”

    Note that in Rand’s four most widely read works of fiction, the only one of her heroes who even discusses child-rearing is Equality 7-2521 in Anthem. (And we don’t even get to see the kids; we just find out at the end that Mrs. Equality 7-2521 is preggers, and that he intends to pass on his newly-discovered individualist values to his children, and that’s it.)

    Oh, and in her non-fiction essays, she deplored the educational philosophy of John Dewey (likening him to the legendary comprachicos who purportedly kidnapped and mutilated children in order to sell them as freaks for the amusement of European nobility), and endorsed Montessori schools instead, which was vaguely referenced in an old Simpsons episode.

    And in all her writings, THAT was pretty much all she had to say on the subject of the nuclear family: li’l Liberty 7-2521 Jr., and Montessori schools.

  13. Throbert McGee engage cluth before opening mouth. Children and MOTHERS! in Galts Gultch.

  14. By the way, Miss Dalmia is on the defensive over there. The commentary is mercilessly picking her apart, without resorting to the slurring juvenile slurs and bromides (thanks Miss Rand!) seen here.

    The “outgrew it” cliche! Hilarious. Every time I see it I know the real meaning. “Ayn Rand electrifies the young, free optimistic mind. Unfortunately a certain number of people betray their youthful sense of life and principles. When they do, the works of Ayn Rand irritate them, reminding them of their discarded spirit. They turn away.”

    John Donohue
    Pasadena, CA

  15. Clutch! I meant to say Clutch!

  16. I think Rand overvalues rationalism. I also think that’s linked to what becomes an unhealthy varient of egoism. Rand’s rational selfishness excludes the value of irrational acts of unselfishness which many people derive significant pleasure from.

    And I’m not just talking about soup kitchens here. People do irrational things like join the military to wage a war on behalf of their country, or give up a lucrative career to pursue painting. Rand’s own characters so this – they make sacrifices for personal goals that are not necessarily rational. See Howard Roark blowing up his own apartment complex. That’s an egoistic act, but not really a rational one. (Despire whatever protests the objectivists will make to this point.)

    Besides that, there’s the pleasure of temporary insanity derived from drugs and alcohol, and all that hippie shit like hypnotic trance and meditation.

    Nevermind dressing up in renaissance garb and beating on other people with makeshift swords, which is how other get their kicks.

    Seriously, the problem with Rand’s philosophy is that rationality is boring. Useful for pursuing wealth, but not neceesarily useful for having fun. Almost all the great joys in life involve a little bit of irrationality.

    1. Roarks actions were a purely emotional response. While he did design the building, he had no recognized legal title to it. So this was an act of willful destruction of someone else’s legal property – complete with a contorted line of reasoning to justify it.

      1. Note that I’m not saying what he did was wrong.

        I’m pro-irrationality, remember?
        I admire his willingness to risk death or prison to blow up the building on behalf of his ideal.

        That’s the kind of irrational act of egoistic self-sacrifice that Rand’s philosophy appears to exclude, yet is among the things that make her characters admirable. Roark is NOT a rational optimizer, and that’s WHY people want to be like him.

  17. Yes, John, but they were basically there as scenery, or at best, walk-on “extras.”

    As I said, with the exception of Anthem‘s narrator, none of Rand’s HEROES — you know, the men and women that her novels revolve around, and that the reader is supposed to emulate — express the slightest interest in procreation or raising families. The original post asked, “Is there something missing in Rand’s message?” And I’m suggesting that the lack of attention to family life is a key piece of what’s missing.

  18. Throbert McGee okay.

    As it happens, Rand does not write about family life in her fiction. I write fiction. I write about family life. I am an Objectivist.

    Good advice to writers of fiction is to “write what you know.” Ayn Rand did not make a family with children. She chose an artist/thinker’s life. She did not know families.

    Your point there is taken. However, this does not mean that ‘we are supposed to emulate’ her heros in that that family life is per se contrary to the principles of Objectivism. Nor is “family life” any sort of automatic value per se. The insane destruction of life and spirit within dysfunctional families demonstrates that.

    And..how do you know? How do you know that John Galt and Dagny, Roark and Dominique would not want/have children? We leave the story right at the moment they achieve their unions.

    1. As it happens, Rand does not write about family life in her fiction. I write fiction. I write about family life. I am an Objectivist.

      Well, in that case, you’re filling in a gap that was missing in the “Objectivist library” — fiction about family life. My intent was not to attack Objectivism as incompatible with parenting, but simply to point out that Rand’s own fiction (i.e., the “core literature” for Objectivists) fails to role-model the raising of children. And I suspect that’s a factor in people “outgrowing” Rand — because they don’t see this big element of their lives (namely, parenting, from colic to acne) dramatized in her books.

      1. I am agreeing with you factually about what’s in Ayn Rand’s books. I even might agree that adults taking on families “full frontal” might “grow away” from Objectivism. That is not on the level of “rejecting” it.

        Those that come to hate it, however? That is not because of the “failure to role-model” child rearing.

        1. John,

          I think that has a whole lot to do with just how deep into Objectivism a person gets.

          You also have to remember that the vast majority of people are not temperamentally constituted to be analysts of the type Rand was (much like an engineer or scientist).

          I can understand why people grow to hate Rand as they get older. I think they’re mistaken, but so was Rand. Both in their own ways.

          When Dalmia says that Rand’s philosophy needs a major over haul, she was right on. Rand left herself open to this outcome.

          1. I did not hear her say that. And it does not need an overhaul.

  19. Rand missed the story of family life and that was huge. The issue there was more than “write what you know”. Writers write about all kinds of things they haven’t lived, and they do it quite nicely. Rand being a perfect example.

    But I would argue that when Hazel Mead says

    I think Rand overvalues rationalism.

    she’s closer to the gist of the problem we’re all searching for, than anything else anyone has said.

    It’s unfortunately true that it’s hard to imagine Rand’s heros going off into the sunset, making babies, and living happily ever after raising them. You can easily imagine them going off and inventing Rearden Metal II and the Galt Space Traveler.

    The reason this interpretation is not “missing” Rand’s intended meaning, is that Rand so thoroughly emphasized the fact that productive work is the central core of being man qua man. None can be heroic without it.

    While she’s right that productive work is an essential part of The True Inner Self, what she missed is the fact that other things need to be there besides productive work. In the real world that people live their lives out in, those other things — like raising children — are as important as productive work.

    In fact, you may in your older years trade off some of what you achieved earlier in life with productive work, to further the family you want to raise. You may let your business empire atrophy a little, to pick a nice Randian example, just so you can spend more time with and on family matters. Try to imagine Francisco doing that. He’ll screw Dagney but that’s only because he can do it tonight, and go back to work in the morning.

    When it comes to forging an empire, children will leave you with something like a hang over in the morning. All of sudden there are lots of things competing for your attention besides maxing out the profits of that copper mine empire you’ve got.

    btw Hazel, I’d also argue that the things you call “irrational” above are not really irrational. They may be “non-Randian heroic”, but they’re not irrational desires. On contrare.

    But understanding why that’s true, brings us to what I say is the central gist of Rand’s Flaw (which should somehow be carved in stone just like the sign of the dollar). It is this:

    Ayn Rand refused to contemplate ambiguity. Anything in life that could not be analyzed, pulverized, and reassembled with pure logical analysis, she (like Howard Roark) simply “did not think about”.

    Example: Rand insists that there is no such thing as “society”, which denies any “rational” (in her terms) interest in “the community at large”. As much as I understand why she tried this tack, she was dead flat wrong.

    Start raising children and you’ll be amazed at how much interest you suddenly have in “the state of the community”. What kind of world are your children growing up in? Even Rand can’t avoid this entirely, with her example of the mother and children in Galt’s Gulch. They’re there because the mother (presumably) likes this community to raise her children in (which btw is not irrational).

    But when you start raising children, you start finding yourself interested in all kinds of things besides productive work. Things that start sounding altruistic. And this raises an ambiguity of just the kind that Ayn Rand was unable to grapple with by pure rational analysis.

    Her solution to such ambiguities was to simply not think about them, by attempting to deny their very existence. No such thing as “society”? Aristotle pulverizes that notion nicely in _The Politics_ when he says (rough paraphrase): “Now, the people of the State may share all things in common, or only some things in common, or none at all. And it is clear that they cannot share nothing in common, for at minimum they must share the name of the State or there would not be one.”

    He then goes on to argue that they should not properly attempt to share all things in common either. Hence he poses the central problem of forming “the State” as one of determining which things we should share in common, and which we should not.

    Aristotle’s first shot out of the gate is to present us with a continuum that we must choose a position on. Which is nothing like the kind of either/or logic that Rand emphatically insisted on.

    And there is a further fleshing out of Rand’s “rational” fallacy. She did not deal well with those things which could not be reduced to either/or logic. She even went so far as to deny the validity or even existence, of things that do not reduce to either/or choices.

    As Aristotle said (was it in The Art of Rhetoric?): it is the mark of a wise man that he does not expect greater precision of any subject, than it naturally admits of.

    I too was heavily influenced by Rand in my younger years. I credit her with saving me from making what probably would have been a disaster out of my life, given the collectivist mentality I was raised to believe in. But much as I still love and admire her, I too have found that I “outgrew” her in middle age.

    1. There is error in every paragraph you just wrote.

      And I don’t believe you “love and admire Ayn Rand”. Your rhetoric and choice of words reflects contempt.

      1. Believe what you will.

        You and I will just have to agree to disagree.

    2. IMO, the “no such thing as society” line comes from Stirner. (Congratulate me, as I have nearly finished reading ‘The Ego and It’s Own’.)

      But what Stirner actually means by that isn’t really that there’s no social environment (in fact he’s accutely aware of social environments), but that ‘society’ is just another abstraction – a “spirit” – which has replaced concepts like God, King, nation, or state, in the role of things which the individual is told he should serve above himself.

      I think that’s also what Thatcher and Rand mean by it – it’s a rhetorical device for explaining why the notion of a duty to society serves to enslave individuals.

      1. Actually, Rand did say it, more than once. As I said, I’m clear on what she was arguing against. But it causes problems too.

        1. They said it, but I mean that the idea is Stirnerian (so to speak) in origin.

  20. I’ll summarize the above long post this way, in terms that engineers and scientists may appreciate. I’m a system level engineer by the way, I have to make overall “things” work, for example the whole car or the whole airplane.

    Ayn Rand was The Grand Master when it comes to pure rational analysis. She was the philosophical equivalent of a high powered mathematician, one of those rare birds that is able to hammer out closed-form mathematical solutions to exceedingly difficult problems.

    The problem, is that like many such mathematicians Rand found numerical solutions to the governing set of equations anathema.

    High powered mathematicians are great when you’re trying to understand all the components that go into making up a system (for example a car or airplane). Indeed, if we don’t understand the components then the overall system will never come to exist.

    But once the system does exist, and that is what you have to find an optimal solution for in the design trade space, you find that your whole perspective has to shift. There is not always just one “best” solution, to the question of how you should put all the piece-parts together in order to design (for example) “the ultimate car”.

    Not sure if that’s going to make sense to anyone who isn’t an engineer, but there it is.

  21. “The relentless, single-minded dedication to one’s passions that Rand seems to favor requires a coldness of the soul”

    Huh? Passionate dedication requires “coldness”? Lovely contradiction, Miss Dalmia.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.