Wednesday, September 16, 2009


There is a great essay right now in the New Republic on Ayn Rand. There is some wonderful writing in it, and the final paragraph is fantastic.

I think it's safe to say to my readers that I'm not fan of Ayn Rand, so the essay offered little to me in the way of contrary opinions. However, I have one concern with the essay.

It argues that Objectivism is the obverse of Marxism. However, Marx wrote a critique of capitalism. Communism is the outcomes of this massive analysis, and whether one likes it or not, has a lot of intellectual merit.

Rand, on the other hand, appears to have been simply, a deeply narcissistic person, and wrote a few books that allowed other narcissists to feel they had a moral basis for their own narcissism. I don't detect analysis in her work so much as a deep desire for the world to be as it was in her own mind.

Analysis of the world vs. Desire for world to be just like me doesn't strike me as terribly obversive.


Osbert Parsley said...

I once read Atlas Shrugged. I suppose compared to Dan Brown and his ilk it's okay, but it's certainly a pretty miserable excuse for a novel.

I'm not convinced that the New Republic writer is quite on track in blaming today's overheated political climate on Rand, however. I'd point instead to someone like F. A. Hayek, who makes essentially the same points about the questionable morality of progressive taxation, government-funded health care, etc., with much more intellectual credibility. Whether you agree with him or not (I don't), he's a genuinely significant thinker, not a mere narcissist.

At the risk of repeating myself, I think the lesson here is to spurn equally all forms of political monomania. Midcentury conservatives used to accuse leftists of "immanentizing the eschaton," but it's hard to think of an more pitiful eschatological fantasy than Galt's Gulch.

Andrew W. said...

No, I think you're right. I don't agree with Hayek, but I would agree that what he's produced is an analysis.

That being said, that relationship between popularizers and academics is a complicated one.

At some level, I can see Hayek's ideas trickling down at the institutional level, but when it comes to a lot of the talking points, to the discourse, I think he makes a good argument that it is Rand whom people are looking to. Moreover, when you think of someone like Greenspan, who controlled the US money supply, which was the only part of the economy Austrian school economists thought could be interfered with my the government, was a strict Objectivist, it seems to me that maybe we should all be reading Atlas Shrugged...

There's actually a funny cartoon out on the Internet that depicts "going Galt". It's pretty funny, but I can't find it!

Osbert Parsley said...

I found that anecdote about Greenspan deeply disturbing - it should set off alarm bells when highly-placed government officials involve themselves with a movement that, to all intents and purposes, amounted to a cult.

I think you're right to point out that "popularizers" like Rand cast an enormous shadow on public discourse. At the level of policy, however, I think there's a significant extent to which intellectuals like Hayek set the agenda - there's a wonderful anecdote about Margaret Thatcher interrupting a speech by one of her more moderate caucus members, banging a copy of The Constitution of Liberty on the table, and announcing, "This is what we believe." Politicians and policy analysts generally aren't great intellectual innovators themselves, and so what we get are warmed-over ideas that they read about in university.

There's a similar phenomenon in the church - if you listen to most sermons, the choice of vocabulary can be used to identify when and where they went to divinity school, and what theological trends their professors were interested in.

paul said...

My favorite commentary on Atlas Shrugged is this sequel, brought to us by Bob the Angry Flower.

Very enjoyable essay. It's nice that periodicals still occasionally publish prose that hasn't been denatured.