Insanity by way of Ayn Rand

I’ve read Ayn Rand – both her fiction and her serious works. I read The Fountainhead when I was 17 and visiting New York City for the first time. In that time and place it resonated with me strongly and I still find it a compelling story. What it isn’t, however, is a satisfying work of philosophy or political economy.

Setting aside the glorification of rape and terrorism in her fiction, the problem with Rand is that her philosophy isn’t very good. It is largely ignored in philosophical circles, and for good reason. There are better arguments for better variations on libertarianism out there, and one such philosopher, Robert Nozick, while sympathetic to her conclusions, has criticized Rand’s published works for not being logically sound.

All this goes to say that I am absolutely terrified when supposedly serious people offer ‘serious’ criticism based on her works.

One memorable moment in “Atlas” occurs near the very end, when the economy has been rendered comatose by all the great economic minds in Washington. Finally, and out of desperation, the politicians come to the heroic businessman John Galt (who has resisted their assault on capitalism) and beg him to help them get the economy back on track. The discussion sounds much like what would happen today:

Galt: “You want me to be Economic Dictator?”

Mr. Thompson: “Yes!”

“And you’ll obey any order I give?”


“Then start by abolishing all income taxes.”

“Oh no!” screamed Mr. Thompson, leaping to his feet. “We couldn’t do that . . . How would we pay government employees?”

“Fire your government employees.”

Oh, no!”

Abolishing the income tax. Now that really would be a genuine economic stimulus. But Mr. Obama and the Democrats in Washington want to do the opposite: to raise the income tax “for purposes of fairness” as Barack Obama puts it.

There are better arguments out there. While I don’t particularly care for Nozick’s work, it is far superior to Rand’s, and Hayek is worthy of the creedence given to him. Why, then, is Rand so frequently relied upon?

Propoganda. More on the flip.

Even where there are efforts to get Rand into the educational world, the focus is on Atlas Shrugged rather than on her philosophical works like The Virtue of Selfishness. Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are compelling and relatable and, ultimately, morality plays. Everyone wants to be Roarke, but leaves feeling themselves to be Keating or, if fortunate, Wynand.

I know that a great many books taught in high school, and even more in college, have what may be considered liberal, leftist, anti-capitalist, populist, or socialist – however you want to call it. The Grapes of Wrath, certainly. The Great Gatsby and Brave New World are anti-consumerist, at least. None of these, however, are taught with the weight given Atlas Shrugged, and are certainly not taught in business school.

Ayn Rand envisions a utopia where pure unfettered capitalism produces a society in which every person may express themselves fully in whatever form they please. All of man’s endeavors become works of art expressing his metaphysical being. And her vision is inspiring, with Howard Roark standing atop the Wynand Building, a new Apollo blazing in the sun.

So let it inspire us. We should all want a society where we can express ourselves fully; where each of us can create an enduring testament to who we are. But please let us not use her books as a guide to public policy. There are legitimate arguments against the income tax – I disagree with them, but they exist. Let us use them instead and leave John Galt and Howard Roark to inspire us personally, rather than politically.

Published in: on January 11, 2009 at 4:58 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] Insanity by way of Ayn Rand I’ve remarked before on the teaching of Ayn Rand in, among other places, business schools, and how that can lead to […]

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