What's Wrong With Ayn Rand?
The goddess of reason wasn't so reasonable
Love her or hate her, you can't deny that Ayn Rand, the 20th century's most bellicose/eloquent (select adjective based on political persuasion) defender of laissez-faire capitalism, is experiencing a revival. Sales of her 50-year-old magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, for years second only to the Bible, are soaring even more this year. Two major publishing houses have rushed to release new Rand biographies—by academics, no less—this fall. And there is nary a tea party protest that doesn't prominently splash banners alluding to John Galt, Atlas Shrugged's ubermensch hero.
The latest issue of Reason magazine, with which I am affiliated, has Rand on the cover with a headline proclaiming: "She's Back." GQ echoes the same thing with its own slant, "The Bitch is Back," not to mention a hilariously naughty picture depicting Rand in an S&M outfit standing astride her former devotee Alan Greenspan.
That over 25 years after her death, Rand's persona and ideas command so much attention is testimony to the abiding power of her ideas. Still the question remains, if she is so influential, why are we on the brink of socialized medicine today? Put another way, if Rand were alive, would she be reveling in the renewed attention she is receiving as a measure of her success? Or would she be tearing her hair out in despair at her failure to stop the advancing Big Government juggernaut?
The point is especially powerful if one considers the influence that some of the other great philosophical defenders of liberty have had in the past. John Locke set out to release the individual from the tyranny of religious authorities by enunciating the doctrine of the separation of church and state. Today, this doctrine is the cornerstone of every liberal democracy in the world. Likewise, Adam Smith penned his grand defense of free trade to beat back the mercantilist ideologies that held sway in 18th century Europe. Today, the cause of free trade—notwithstanding occasional bouts of protectionism—is gaining ground worldwide. But Rand's life-long crusade—defeating socialism—which appeared within grasp just two decades ago when the Soviet Union collapsed, now seems to have regressed to the 1930s, when FDR used the economic meltdown to massively intervene in private industry.
Rand's adherents blame this state of affairs on the faulty philosophical principles of society—especially on issues of morality. But replacing false ideas with true ones is precisely what transformative figures do, and certainly what Rand, who firmly believed in the power of reason and truth, was hoping to do. 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."
So where did she go wrong?
Rand's entire project involved liberating the individual from the yoke of collectivism and creating the social, moral, and political conditions in which he could live a fully actualized life. Each individual's own happiness is his highest purpose, she said, and boldly declared selfishness to be a virtue—contrary to what various religious and non-religious (communist, fascist, communitarian) preachers of the ethics of self-sacrifice had been saying for ages.
For people like myself, laboring under the twin tyrannies of tradition and socialism when I first read Rand in my native India, this is heady, empowering stuff. It supplies you with the moral and intellectual ammunition to stand up to those claiming to own a piece of you—family, community, and state—and take control of your own destiny.
But is self-actualization through productive work—the ultimate goal of this liberation for Rand—all there is to a happy life? Two centuries before Rand arrived on the scene, Adam Smith had already written The Wealth of Nations, a powerful treatise demonstrating why self-interest offers a more secure foundation for a rational society than a selfless dedication to the common good. But he also recognized in the very first sentence of the Theory of Moral Sentiments—his brilliantly nuanced, richly observed study of human morality—that: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it."
Smith spent his whole life examining and reconciling both the self-interested and the "other-interested" side of human nature. Rand, on the other hand, effectively put these two sides at war—limiting her usefulness in the fight to stop the growth of government in the bargain.
Rand sought to provide an individualistic and moral defense of capitalism—not a practical and collectivist one. She understood better than anybody that by unleashing the productive potential of individuals, capitalism delivers untold social benefits. But these benefits weren't the primary reason to defend capitalism, she insisted. Rather, it is that capitalism frees individuals—especially those with exceptional abilities, the Howard Roarks and the John Galts—to reach their highest potential.
By grounding capitalism and economic liberties in the psychic needs of individuals as opposed to, say, GDP growth, Rand avoided the collectivist trap under which individual rights are dependent for their legitimacy on serving some broader social purpose. However, this great virtue of her approach turns into a great vice in the context of her broader message, which seems to regard anything beyond a perfunctory interest in the well-being of others as vaguely illicit.
Unlike Smith, Rand failed to fully recognize that though human beings are not constituted for self-sacrifice, they have an innate need to see others prosper. Hence, there is something crabbed and withholding in her writings, as if she is going out of her way on principle to avoid giving any assurance that everyone in fact would be better off under capitalism. Other libertarian theorists—Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises—avoided this flaw. But Rand regarded their defense of capitalism as insufficiently pure. And to the extent that it is Rand's—not their—case for capitalism that sticks in the popular imagination, it might enhance—not diminish—the allure of government over free-market solutions to social issues such as health coverage for the uninsured.
Most people read Rand when they are young and are deeply moved by her, only to outgrow her by mid-life. Her adherents like to blame this on the moral pusillanimity and irrationality of the readers. But the real problem is perhaps with Rand herself: Her ideology of self-actualization speaks much more to the concerns of the young than the mature—again, because she ignores the "other-interested" side of human nature.
Consider what she wrote in her essay "The Ethics of Emergency": "The proper method of judging when or whether one should help another person is by reference to one's own rational self-interest and one's own hierarchy of values: The time, money or effort one gives or the risk one takes should be proportionate to the value of the person in one's own happiness." This statement certainly doesn't preclude helping others so long as they are important to us. But it doesn't tell us whether we should make them important to us in the first place.
For example, under Rand's schema would a person who abandons some passion in order to look after an elderly parent have a higher or lower moral standing than someone who doesn't (assuming that the parents are equally worthy)? Will the former be happier? More at peace? Rand gives us no real reason to believe so. In fact, the distinct impression one gets from her work is that an individual's first duty is to cultivating his own passions rather than nurturing his interest in the flourishing of those around him (with the possible exception of one's romantic partner). No surprise then that the virtue of generosity or benevolence, though it has pride of place in the work of Aristotle—the only philosopher to whom Rand acknowledges any intellectual debt—occupies a second-class status in her own work.
The fact is that Rand gets harder to take as one grows older and concerns about those around us become more important than our own personal project of self development. The relentless, single-minded dedication to one's passions that Rand seems to favor requires a coldness of the soul, a narrowing of one's humanity—the natural interest in the fortune of others that Smith alludes to—that most people find is not exactly conducive to their happiness.
This has profound and unfortunate political consequences. On the practical level, it makes it difficult to build a strong and growing anti-government movement based solely on Rand's philosophy, because the older cohort of her followers is falling off on a regular basis. On the theoretical level, Rand's ideas offer no real possibility of developing robust civil society responses to address the needs of those down on their luck. It is difficult to imagine a Randian qua Randian, say, volunteering in a soup kitchen to feed the hungry, or even founding the Fraternal Order of Fellow Randians to provide free health coverage and housing to jobless and homeless Randians. Since misfortune and distress are a normal part of the human condition, a philosophy that offers no positive, private solutions to deal with them will just have a harder time making the case against government intervention stick.
Rand's resurgence is certainly a welcome antidote to the Big Government onslaught that the country is experiencing right now. In the age of bailouts, the world certainly needs to hear—loud and clear—her message of personal freedom as well as its corollary, personal responsibility. But if Rand is going to play a starring role in the long-term battle to defeat statist ideologies, rather than making episodic, cameo appearances, her work will require a radical overhaul. Ultimately, the best way to honor her is by making her cause succeed—even if that means jettisoning some of her intellectual baggage.
Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and writes a bi-weekly columnist at Forbes where this article originally appeared.