Monday, February 09, 2009
Ayn Rand. Trust me. You wouldn't want to take her on in person. Neither
would Obama for that matter. She'd crucify him. Add your own punchline.
Of course, she's dead now. Which makes her much much easier to refute.
CAPITALISM. With the ascendancy of a messiah-based presidential administration, I'm starting to detect a resurgence of interest in Ayn Rand and her most important book, Atlas Shrugged. A few weeks ago, I heard a local Philadelphia talk radio host promoting a show he planned to do with one of Rand's advocates, and he started discussing Shrugged with callers, only belatedly admitting that he hadn't read the book himself (?!) Since then, I've heard other talkmeisters and pundits referencing Rand and Shrugged as prophetically, antidotally relevant to the massive redistributionist government buildup that now appears inevitable. Then, over the weekend, a site called Small Dead Animals linked to my recent More Simple Arithmetic post, and a brushfire argument about Rand (vis a vis IP) broke out among a few of the commenters there. It seems that Rand is gradually working her way back into the national debate, so I thought it appropriate to add two more cents of my own with the idea of helping neophytes navigate what are bound to be perpetually stormy waters.
Rand inspires extremely strong responses, pro and con, frequently from unexpected quarters. Newcomers to her work must be prepared for that. The most devoted fans, who call themselves objectivists, don't brook any criticism of her, even if it's couched in terms of agreement with her primary tenets. The haters are equally monolithic in their contempt. Yet some liberals, notably feminists, express some affection for her as an eccentric pioneer of women's emancipation. Many conservatives, on the other hand, despise her and feel compelled to belittle even those parts of her argument with which it would seem they must agree. All of which means that it's dangerous to start tossing her name around if you haven't actually read her work for yourself.
Back in October 2007, I wrote about Rand here after Michelle Malkin posted an entry honoring the fiftieth anniversary of Atlas Shrugged. An excerpt from my thoughts then that captures some of the reasons for the ongoing controversy:
Her loathing of the socialist egalitarianism [now] best exemplified by Berkeley and Hollywood leftists was utter, devoid of any shade of nuance. She didn't believe in income redistribution or a social safety net of any sort. Her ideal was a pure meritocracy in which absolutely unfettered capitalism rewards those who work, innovate, and take risks in the market. Not much is said about those who are incapable of work or unwilling to work. Presumably, they will learn when their straits become dire enough.
[Atlas Shrugged] is also unabashedly pro-American. One of the characters... delivers a five- or ten-page speech celebrating the fact that the United States is the only nation in history to employ its own initials ('U" superimposed on 'S') as the symbol of its currency, thus demonstrating the cardinal value of the nation (regardless of any cracker-barrel platitudes we may repeat as a pretense of altruism.) God, for example, is conspicuously absent from Atlas Shrugged; Rand was an atheist, which along with her ruggedly individualistic feminism, was all she had in common with the 'progressive' community... Nor is the atheism incidental. Rand was a product of the Soviet system, a supreme rationalist who created her philosophy in direct opposition to the equally atheistic rationalism of Marxism. Time and again she assaults the concept of "the greatest good for the greatest number," arguing that personal sacrifice is actually immoral and, correctly, that most of what we think of as sacrifice is not. The mother who goes hungry in order that her child may eat is not sacrificing anything. She is simply choosing an alternative she values more highly than her own physical well being. But the more abstract and remote from the individual such choices become, the less legitimate they become. At the extreme, the requirement to sacrifice personal well being in deference to the needs (or demands) of an entire populace amounts to annihilation of the individual self.
Rand's writings are as extreme -- and as unrealistically black-and-white -- as the rationalist totalitarian system her personal experience inspired her to oppose. That's why her books have always been most prized by those who read them very young. (I note that Michelle [Malkin] read Atlas Shrugged in high school, at about the same age I did.) Her sensationally radical opposition to a lot of unexamined social pieties provides a clarity that enables young minds to see a bigger picture they never knew was there. For most, the result is a kind of intellectual breakthrough which leads through time to a better educated and usually more temperate view of the ideal social contract; for example, one in which an individual may feel some responsibility for the well being of people he doesn't know personally, or in which a soldier may give up his life for his country without its being an immoral sacrifice.
It should be obvious that I'm not one of her uncritical admirers. But I do agree with much of her argument and will defend her against the most common charge leveled against her by the majority of her critics. She is not, as you will hear again and again, simplistic. What she is is pure. She is a pure capitalist, a pure rationalist, a pure atheist. That's why so much of the antipathy she inspires on the right and the left is so irrational. Emotion is the mud we slather over our intellectual inconsistencies to hide them from ourselves.
The conservatives who hate her do so because her vision of capitalism is every bit as heartless as liberal Democrats keep claiming it is in reality. When God and the leavening effects of Judeo-Christian morality are amputated from the social equation, what remains of the American economic tradition can be caricatured as cold-blooded social Darwinism, anti-moral in terms of the upbringing almost all Americans have had. Further, her rational disdain for what we might call abstract altruism mandates precisely the kind of foreign policy presently being espoused by her objectivist disciples -- let the rest of the world take care of itself. They're not worth our time, attention, money or blood unless it serves the immediate self-interest of those who choose to involve themselves in such ways. International business is okay. Foreign aid is thievery from the citizens who earned the money that's being given away.
Liberals hate her for even more compelling reasons. Above, I listed her purities: "She is a pure capitalist, a pure rationalist, a pure atheist." This is the wrong order in terms of the logic of her philosophy. It should be the reverse. Everything flows from the atheist assumption. If there is no God, no kindly supernatural force to suspend the physics of cause-and-effect or intervene on behalf of moral causes, then there is no rational basis whatever to act except out of pure self interest. What each of us has is our own life. Period. What rational sense can it possibly make to deprive, devalue, or shorten our own lives for the sake of utter strangers who are in exactly the same existential situation we are? In physiological terms, life is a contest. The strong win, eat well, mate more successfully, and perpetuate their genes. The weak lose and what rational basis is there for mourning that fact? If Dawkins is right about evolution and about his certainty that there is no God, then Rand is also necessarily right. She is the purer rationalist. Altruism is a self-destructive mirage, an ignorant hangover from the intoxicants of false religion and its derivatives, including such concepts as social justice, equality, and the idiotic myth of living harmoniously with each other and nature. The raging secularists of the left should be Randian objectivists. Somewhere in their damaged minds, they know that and so they need tons of mud. They hate, hate, hate her.
And all that hate is there even before we factor in Rand's absolute contempt for liberal political philosophy, all of which really is traceable to the marxist ideal of "the greatest good for the greatest number." The choice of capitalism as an organizing system for society is also ultimately rational in these terms, because it succeeds to a large degree in substituting financial risk for direct physical risk, which serves the self-interest of all the would-be 'alpha' pack leaders. A corollary but unintended additional consequence is that it also tends to reduce the direct physical risk of the pack 'betas' through 'omegas.'
This is what happens when you encounter a pure argument. It illuminates the impurities of your own positions, even the ones you think are rationally impeccable. The conservative who thinks he believes "let the unfettered market decide absolutely everything" must recognize that he doesn't really believe that. There are limits and the limits are defined by the extent to which his personal morality does put the good of others or the community as a whole above his own individual priorities. The atheist liberal who thinks a purely secular system of governance aimed at ensuring absolute equality must recognize that his flat moral assumptions are inconsistent with the physics of the universe his rationality insists on as fact. And if he is right about the universe and irrational in his moral certainties, then what else might he be wrong about? From there it is but a small step to realizing that the only experiments conducted thus far in purely atheistic government organizations have killed more of the people they were meant to protect than the sum total of all other governments in recorded human history. (Note, for example, that the rational desire to pretend that all pack members can be omegas is a specious stratagem of alphas who want to rule the largest possible packs. I guarantee you, Dawkins doesn't see himself dying a few years from now content in the knowledge that the actuarial tables of the National Health Service require his kidney transplant to be reassigned to an illiterate dockworker one third his age. Ditto Stalin and Castro. There are always alphas. Ask Dawkins. Or Dr. Tommyrot.)
Most of us, conservatives and liberals both, have more or less unthinkingly accepted whatever mix of reason and emotion we've assimilated from our own parents, our teachers, our peers, and the mass media. That's why adolescence is an ideal time to be struck by a lightning bolt (i.e., for you techie babies, an external power surge) that shocks the brain into new patterns of thought (er, compels a reboot). That's why in decades past, Ayn Rand had such a powerful effect on young readers. Not that older readers were too sophisticated for her, but that younger minds were more amenable to remaking themselves.
Personally, I think Rand faces an uphill battle with today's youth, however open they might be to a different perspective. Immersed though it is in social philosophy, Atlas Shrugged is a novel, and its impact -- the emotional appeal of its daring ideas -- is heightened by the epic struggle of its glamorous fictional heroine to keep her doomed railroad in business against literally impossible odds. For over a thousand pages. How many of you youngsters have ever read a thousand-page novel? Would you? Can you? There is a mysterious character in the book we keep hearing about who doesn't show up until the final hundred pages, and he speaks for thirty pages on the radio. I'm sorry, but I think your teachers have mostly had their way with you, and you'll never get this far, or experience the Die Hard-finale equivalent this speech delivered to Rand enthusiasts of my generation. Where in your mind-space is there room for a 15,000 word version of "Yippee ki-ay, motherfucker"?
I'm not saying don't try. Do try. If you can see it through, you just might experience the power surge I'm talking about. That's why I'm going to give you a starter project.
There's a blessedly short precursor to Atlas Shrugged, also by Ayn Rand. It's called Anthem. Maybe 125 pages. It doesn't get much into the economics of capitalism, but it does offer an entirely new take on liberal truisms about "self esteem." It should show you what the liberal definition of that term really means and how it relates to true individualism. If you can read it and learn something from it, then you just might be ready for Atlas Shrugged. (Do NOT settle for the Cliff Notes option, or you will never be a man, my son.)
The really good news? Anthem is here, online, in full.
Afterwards, if you want to talk, we're here.