She got a lot wrong. She was naïve about America and Capitalism and, in some ways, about human beings. Her notorious statement that the Europeans had the right to displace the Native Americans because they could make better use of the land runs counter to her own principles regarding plunder and the use of force. The Europeans didn’t come to develop the land, they came to steal it. They didn’t have right on their side, they had gunpowder. Pure logic can get you into trouble. Rand was an intellectual, and lived more in the ideal world than the real one. She was also more of an artist than a philosopher, which she herself seemed either to forget or underestimate. That being said, “Atlas Shrugged” hasn’t been rated by readers as the “second most influential book after the Bible” for no reason. And if Rand’s economic ideas were being actually applied the way she imagined them, there wouldn’t be an economic crisis.
So what do I care? Ayn Rand sold a lot more books than I ever have and if she were alive today she wouldn’t care one way or the other what I think. I care because ideas are important, and right about now we need all the good ones we can get. Much as there are core values underlying religious belief that the human race can’t afford to do without, there are ideas in Ayn Rand that are currently being ignored at our peril.
There’s what you might call her “first principal” – that reason is mankind’s greatest attribute and that those who are able to apply it objectively in their dealings with the world have given us every advance our species has made since we first stepped out of the caves. That’s the truth - arguably the most important truth in human history. There’s no such thing as a group thought. The wheel didn’t just "arise”. Of course, groups of thinkers can get together and bounce their ideas off each other. Most of the biggest advances in history have come in environments where this was happening (ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the mid-20th century American Space Program, to name a few). But every thought, every single one, happened between one person’s ears. And every “successful” thought succeeded for one of two reasons:
1. The thought was based on objective, verifiable, testable reality, or
2. The thought was based on what a lot of people wanted to hear, and the thinker was able to sell it to them (and sometimes to themselves), at least in the short run.
There’s not much question about which of these two is prevalent in the current political climate. Rand wouldn’t have liked either side very much. Rand was very much into the idea that a million people voting that something false is true doesn’t make it true. She didn’t have much use for opinion polls, which are so often touted these days as the final arbiter of what is good for the country and what is not. But there’s another problem.
The fact that “Successful Thought #2” is also prevalent in the current economic climate is responsible for a lot of the mess we’re in. The idea that Ayn Rand’s philosophy of business is that anything that makes a buck is good despite how many people get hurt is simply not true, no matter how many people think so. In her books, her "businessmen” actually make things – they’re inventors, they run steel mills or railroads, they pay their workers well and expect good performance in return. They aren’t brokers who trick people into taking on debt they can’t afford and reselling bundled bad debt so many times it throws people into the street and destroys the capital underpinnings of the actual production system. They aren’t hustlers who rely on their fame and connections more than on the value of their products. They don’t export jobs overseas, exporting a customer with every job. In Rand’s books, people like that are the bad guys, not the heroes. The fact that her fictional bad guys are all around us while her heroes are hard to find is more of a sad commentary on human nature than on Rand.
Where Rand was naïve was in her thinking that objective, verifiable truth is enough to get anybody through the night. There are intangibles that motivate us that go beyond what can be verified or proven. John Galt, the hero of “Atlas Shrugged” is more engaging because of his integrity than because his engine worked. And while Rand was totally justified in her belief that the actual producers of wealth should be rewarded, not exploited, she was naïve about who actually gets most of the money in an unregulated market system. Our current "one percenters” economic unbalance would have appalled her as completely irrational and inevitably destructive of a healthy economy, much in the same way she was appalled by the Soviet system of top-down Socialism which she experienced (and escaped) in her youth. And she was correct in thinking that an economy that forces a large percentage of the population to depend on government benefits because they can’t make a living wage is not a viable economy. I make my living assisting people who are in that position and they don’t like it either. They’d rather have pensions from jobs that paid them what they were worth. Rand’s idea of Capitalism was that it should be a "win, win” transaction honestly applied by all parties concerned. She would not fit in well with most contemporary business models. And if she were alive, the conservative right would have nothing to do with her. She was a confirmed Atheist and unlikely to appeal to the Evangelical vote.
Why her work still reverberates with readers 60 years later has much to do with her glorification of real human ability, of the producer over the thief, and of the individual’s right to answer only to the rational judgment of his or her own mind. In spite of herself, she has more in common with the sermon on the mount (from that book that beat her out for “most influential”) than she’d probably care to admit.
I’ll have more to say on that in a further installment. Let me close with this thought: In “Atlas Shrugged”, the major plotline is that all the smart people have gone on strike and are hiding out somewhere.
Hmmm…could explain a lot.