“I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff.”
That’s Paul Ryan, Republican vice-presidential candidate, in a 2005 speech delivered at The Atlas Society–one of many lavishly funded organizations devoted to spreading the thought and philosophy of Ayn Rand (he’s since distanced himself).
There are so many of these organizations it is hard to keep track. Apart from the Atlas Society, there is the Ayn Rand Institute, the Nathaniel Branden Institute, the Anthem Foundation and the Institute for Objectivist Studies. Numerous libertarian think-tanks, like the Cato Institute, promote Rand. Campus groups–which receive funding from objectivist foundations–are everywhere, promoting Rand via slick newsletters (like The Undercurrent: “Obama wants to use Blakely’s earnings to cover the bill for thousands of less productive citizens’ flu shots and groceries,” a typical line reads–Blakely is the noble, visionary entrepreneur who created Spanx.)
The fantastically rich find in Rand’s celebration of individual achievement a kindred spirit, and support her work with pecuniary enthusiasm: in 1999, McGill University turned down a million-dollar endowment from wealthy businessman Gilles Tremblay, who had given the money in the hopes of creating a chair dedicated to the the study of her work. Then-president Bernard Shapiro commented that “we can’t just sell our souls just for the sake of being richer,” hopefully aware of the irony: what else is there but getting richer? Rand literally ends her most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, with the dollar sign replacing the sign of the cross, traced in the air–indicating the dawn of a new, bold, daringly sophomoric era.
Rand’s books have sold in the millions, never quite losing steam in the half-century since publication. A now-infamous Library of Congress survey placed Atlas Shrugged as the second-most influential book in America, trailing only the Bible–a dubious pairing, perhaps, given Rand’s militant atheism, but one that indeed captures the uneasy tension of contemporary America: the celebrated Protestant ethic versus the spirit of capitalism.
Despite her popular appeal, perennially best-selling books, and the breathless testimonial of politicians, actors and businessmen–Ryan is scarcely alone in his praise–professional academics almost universally disdain Rand. An online poll by widely-read philosophy professor and blogger Brian Leiter had Ayn Rand elected the one thinker who “brings the most disrepute on to our discipline by being associated with it,” by a landslide. She is almost never taught in classrooms. Her name elicits jeers and funny, exasperated tales of fierce, bright undergraduates under her spell arguing her case for hours on end.
This near-unanimous rejection has led to some remarkably uncharitable, and bizarre, attempts to explain away the lack of academic interest: in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Rand, its authors write that “her advocacy of a minimal state with the sole function of protecting negative individual rights is contrary to the welfare statism of most academics,” claiming outright that the overwhelming majority of professional philosophers and political theorists have been simply unable to fairly evaluate her work because of the biasing factor of their prior political commitments.
Somehow the same ‘welfare statism’ of academics has not prevented the close study of Robert Nozick’s landmark Anarchy, State and Utopia, a sophisticated libertarian text that mounts an original, and far more effective, argument against redistributive policies. Apart from John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, there is perhaps no more commonly-assigned book in undergraduate political philosophy classes.
Surely there must be some other reason for Rand’s academic neglect. The authors of the SEP entry do go on to suggest an additional number of largely psychological hypotheses having to do with Rand’s dogmatic tone, cult-like following, and emphasis on popular fiction–never entertaining the possibility that professional philosophers think her work is, quite simply, of poor quality. Objectively, ahem, speaking.
What is Rand’s ‘philosophy’, then? Her own summary may be appropriated:
I am primarily the creator of a new code of morality which has so far been believed impossible, namely a morality not based on faith, not on arbitrary whim, not on emotion, not on arbitrary edict, mystical or social, but on reason; a morality that can be proved by means of logic which can be demonstrated to be true and necessary.
Now may I define what my morality is? Since man’s mind is his basic means of survival […] he has to hold reason as an absolute, by which I mean that he has to hold reason as his only guide to action, and that he must live by the independent judgment of his own mind; that his highest moral purpose is the achievement of his own happiness […] that each man must live as an end in himself, and follow his own rational self-interest.
The practical, political conclusions to be drawn from this ‘morality’ are surprisingly specific: a minimal government, for instance, which enforces no minimum wage law, operates no schools, collects no taxes, and merely enforces contracts in an economy that is otherwise entirely laissez-faire. Rational individuals do not come together to create a universal health insurance system in the process of seeking ‘happiness’. They do not pass laws restricting what age a child can work.
Unsurprisingly, the politicians and businessmen who admire Rand focus on such policy recommendations and are rather less familiar with, for instance, her grounds for rejecting the analytic-synthetic distinction. There’s a radical disconnect between the impact her political thought and the influence her metaphysics has had. Everybody who likes Rand can defend at great length a number of socio-economic theses; what very few do is discuss the metaphysical underpinnings that purportedly justify her political and social views.
This is unfortunate, because her philosophy attempts to form a coherent system, and these higher-order political views are the direct result of foundational assumptions in metaphysics and logic (and a series of complex derivations from these). This is one case where an opinion on the possibility of a priori knowledge could mean the difference between a school breakfast program and a hungry child.
Now there are two ways to approach Objectivism: first, and most commonly, we may tackle her edifying fiction, which portrays Manichean conflicts between heroic, intelligent ‘producers’ and parasitic ‘looters.’ The latter, mainly by force of numbers and all the vile raiments of democracy, get in the way of the former: they do not understand that they depend, utterly, on these rarefied ubermenschen, who, of course, ultimately triumph. Given the stark morality of the novels, everyone who reads them in a positive light cast themselves quite naturally as noble producers, and certainly not parasites, which, given Rand’s popularity, means we are a society absolutely replete with noble, heroic, rugged geniuses.
Well-meaning readers are taken in by her grandiose, if somewhat turgid, presentation of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute (Atlas Shrugged).
The values propounded in her work many find stirring and true. To contest Rand, to the true believer, is to besmirch rationality itself, to prize the unremarkable ‘collective’ over the individual, to shrug at excellence, and–from jealousy, or some other base instinct–to hate and undermine one’s betters and undeservedly demand what is theirs.
The other way in is via her ‘system’ of philosophy: resolutely materialistic, godless, and rationalistic. It proceeds largely from a set of basic axioms (‘existence’, ‘identity’, ‘consciousness’) and derives a more-or-less comprehensive set of metaphysical, epistemological and ethical views. Here we have a complicated internal jargon (which resists assimilation into the analytic vernacular) and a set of post-Randian writers–Peikoff, Kelley, and others–who have fleshed out and expanded her thought into something like a philosophical system in the traditional sense, the kind of thing that has been largely abandoned in contemporary academic philosophy. One can get a sense of the ‘system’ from a glance at the wikipedia page: there are any number of dubious inferences made, most remarkably from ‘existence’ to ‘identity’ to something like conceptual necessity (and thence to causality itself, defined as the “principle of identity applied to action”–possibly the most cringe-worthy explanation of causality to ever be presented seriously: in effect, we are told that things do as they do because they are as they are.)
From axiomatic bases the edifice is built: existence exists and is characterized by identity, which is populated by conscious beings, who must use reason to survive as individuals, and the dictates of reason force us to admit that rational self-interest is the only metaphysically coherent way forward, logically implying capitalism and free markets.
To deny this is to deny that A is A.
“I think she’s [Rand] one of the greatest people of all time. Ultimately, in philosophy, she’s going to be one of the giants. I mean, she’ll be up there with Plato and Aristotle.”
That’s Dr. Yaron Brook, who holds a PhD in Finance from the University of Texas at Austin. This provocative quote is culled from a recent interview in which he asserted that we are headed for a new dark ages unless we heed Rand’s wisdom. If we do not, “the next renaissance will begin when her books are rediscovered after 1,000 years of darkness.”
Brook is the director of the Ayn Rand Institute, the largest Objectivist organization, with a budget in the millions and political links to the Tea Party movement.
The incredible conceit that Ayn Rand will figure in the history of philosophy as one of the greats–better than Kant (“corrupt”), Hegel (“nonsensical”) or Wittgenstein (“garbage”)–is not restricted to her contemporary followers: Rand, in the same 1957 interview with Mike Wallace linked above, described herself as the most creative thinker alive. (Corey Robin notes that “Arendt, Quine, Sartre, Camus, Lukács, Adorno, Murdoch, Heidegger, Beauvoir, Rawls, Anscombe and Popper were all at work” in 1957, and invites the reader to draw their own conclusions).
Rand’s extreme self-regard was mirrored in her friends and followers. Former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan–a member of Ayn Rand’s tightly-knit inner circle–only recently, and reluctantly, acknowledged that there may be ‘flaws’ in Rand’s ideology of self-interest. But in the 1960s, he was writing for objectivist newsletters, and praised Rand for decades afterwards: “talking to Rand was like starting a game of chess thinking I was good, and suddenly finding myself in checkmate,” he said. In a 1957 letter to the editor prompted by a dismissive review of Atlas Shrugged, he wrote
Atlas Shrugged’ is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.
One wonders at the type of celebration of ‘life’ that centers around satisfied joy at the perishing of so-called ‘parasites.’ A boldly totalitarian discourse of justified elimination, produced a scant dozen years after the end of the second world war. It is a tradition upheld by contemporary Randians: Brooks has called for unrestricted, murderous warfare in Iraq (see above); Leonard Peikoff, who originally founded the Ayn Rand Institute, calls for the “immediate end” of “terrorist states” such as Iran, not ruling out nuclear weapons, and this “regardless of the countless innocents caught in the line of fire.”
Admiration for Rand can be found in strange places. Actors from Brad Pitt to Farrah Fawcett have effused praise as well. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas allegedly makes his clerks watch the 1949 film version of The Fountainhead. But the definitive statements belongs to her lover and confidante Nathaniel Branden (indeed, Rand’s heir apparent until a fractious and unsavoury dispute over his termination of their affair). He recalls writing, in all seriousness, that
Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived. Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world. Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter of any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral or appropriate to man’s life on earth.
These were the initial premises presented in Branden’s lecture courses on objectivism, approved and overseen by Rand herself. From this point of view, it is indeed very fortunate for humanity that Rand did not choose to ‘go Galt’ and, like her most famous protagonist, withdraw her genius from us.
Meanwhile, a thriving cottage industry of journalists, essayists, cultural observers and philosophers seem engaged in a one-upmanship contest over who can deride her with the most vicious economy of words possible. George Monbiot says of Rand that her thought “has a fair claim to be the ugliest philosophy the postwar world has produced.” Corey Robin, with a historical flourish, writes that “St. Petersburg in revolt gave us Vladimir Nabokov, Isaiah Berlin and Ayn Rand. The first was a novelist, the second a philosopher. The third was neither but thought she was both.” The late Gore Vidal was scathing even decades ago, writing in 1961 that Rand
has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the “welfare” state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts […] Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic.
Criticism has not only come from the left. While Rand’s allure to conservatives is far more pronounced now–despite some lingering misgivings from religious groups–intellectuals on the right despaired of Rand’s growing influence when her books were first published. In the National Review, Whittaker Chambers wrote, in 1957:
Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible.
This was at a time when many conservative intellectuals saw in the complexity of the world a reason to be trepidant about radical change and wary about the potential for deleterious destabilization it brings, an altogether different form of ‘conservatism’ from that of the present-day marriage of libertarian economics with theological presumption. Chambers rightly saw in Rand a dangerous radical, one who glosses over complexity in her desire to derive political prescription from first principles, an anti-conservative writer par excellence advocating a radically different society:
[Atlas Shrugged] is essentially a political book. And here begins mischief. Systems of philosophic materialism, so long as they merely circle outside this world’s atmosphere, matter little to most of us. The trouble is that they keep coming down to earth. It is when a system of materialist ideas presumes to give positive answers to real problems of our real life that mischief starts. In an age like ours, in which a highly complex technological society is everywhere in a high state of instability, such answers, however philosophic, translate quickly into political realities. And in the degree to which problems of complexity and instability are most bewildering to masses of men, a temptation sets in to let some species of Big Brother solve and supervise them.
William F. Buckley, who helped define modern American conservatism by launching and serving as editor-in-chief of The National Review, specifically published Chambers’ critique (and others like it) to purge Rand from conservatism–writing that “her desiccated philosophy’s conclusive incompatibility with the conservative’s emphasis on transcendence, intellectual and moral” meant it was unworthy of the noble tradition of conservative politics, and to be cast out with the Birchers, anti-semites, and white supremacists.
The difference of opinion over the value of Rand’s work could not be more stark. One is hard-pressed to find a ‘moderate’ who finds in Rand some modest value or would characterize her as a decent, or simply good, thinker. She is either genius or a fraud; either a first-rate, world-historical intellectual or a hack writer who appeals to the worst in people by pointing to their wounded self-worth and telling them they are great (“To say “I love you” one must first be able to say the “I” ”, she wrote in The Fountainhead, sounding more like Dr. Phil and less like the heir to Aristotle).
This polarizing effect is remarkable. It is partially a function of the reach of her work: far worse things have been expressed than those ideas contained in Rand’s novels, but almost none have had the impact (ten million grenades handed out on street-corners do more damage than an atom bomb left sitting on a shelf). But the virulence is also a reaction to the breathless fanaticism of her converts, hyperbole matched to hyperbole, in the full knowledge that derision is often more effective than argument in inoculating the undecided.
It is true that Rand’s opponents in popular media often focus on her personal life–her exile from Russia, her ‘rational’ and tawdry affair with Branden, her Hollywood roots, her censorious soirees (hilariously parodied in Rothbard’s one-act ‘play’ Mozart was a Red)–and only mention her ethics and philosophy to disparage the conclusions reached. It appears self-evident that all this talk of ‘existence exists’ as applied to public policy is nonsense, so it suffices to trot out the absurdities of ‘ethical egoism’ and the case is settled.
Rand’s proponents, particularly those of an intellectual bent, find in such ‘evasions’ a confirmation that they hold a rationally acquired set of truths: otherwise, critics of Rand would be able to take on the system, rather than engage in ad hominem or demonstrate emotionally-clouded dislike of her inescapable conclusions (proof positive of their own unreason). Even those who have only felt from the novels an intuitive, undeniable pull know that beneath the pulp of Roark, Taggart and Galt lies a profound set of philosophical doctrines that the high priests can always ably defend and no critic dares touch.
One of the few academic philosophers to take Rand seriously enough to bother with a critique was our erstwhile libertarian friend Robert Nozick. His short article On the Randian Argument proposes to examine the alleged ‘moral foundations of capitalism’ provided by her system. Almost immediately it devolves in dialectical castigation, with Nozick taking Rand to task for lacking clarity, for failing to adequately support her premises, for drawing unsupported conclusions, and for baldly stating controversial theses as if they were self-evident facts. From the very first, he writes that “I would most like to set out the argument as a deductive argument and then examine the premises. Unfortunately, it is not clear (to me) exactly what the argument is.” His reconstruction is a marvel of patience and charity–combined with lacerating criticism. He sums up the argument:
(1) Only living beings have values with a point.
(2) Therefore, life itself is a value to a living being which has it.
(3) Therefore, life, as a rational person, is a value to the person whose life it is.
(4) Therefore, “some principle about interpersonal behaviour and rights and purposes.”
The argument is, at some length, considered and demolished. Two quick examples suffice (the interested reader may consult the piece).
Upon examining the premise that ‘life’ is a necessary precondition for the existence of value and is, therefore, a value itself (2), Nozick dryly comments that
one cannot reach the conclusion that life itself is a value merely by conjoining together many sentences containing the world ‘value’ and ‘life’ or ‘alive’ and hoping that, by some process of association and mixture, this new connection will arise.
The problem is that Rand, Nozick says, does not consider other value-forming concepts during the course of her transcendental argument and has no means to rule them out:
Cannot content be given to should-statements by … any one of a vast number of other dimensions or possible goals? … it is puzzling why it is claimed that only against a background in which life is (assumed to be) a value, can should-statements be given a sense. It might, of course, be argued, that only against this background can should-statements be given their correct sense, but we have seen no argument for this claim.
Puzzling indeed: certainly alternatives are possible. And it is not that these alternatives do not ‘value life’ themselves–of course they do, derivatively. Rand’s claim is that valuing life must be foundational, but, apart from some intuitive appeal, we are never told why that should be.
More troublesome yet is the leap from premises (1-3) to the vague principles of (4), which Nozick claims involves a number of dubious assumptions–not the least of which is a principle requiring there be no “objective conflicts of interests between persons”, ever. Surely this is too strong: even the Gods are known to quarrel.
In a footnote, Nozick concludes that Rand’s attraction lay primarily in “the way it handles particular cases, the kind of considerations it brings to bear, its ‘sense of life’.” He continues:
For many, the first time they encounter a libertarian view saying that a rational life (with individual rights) is possible and justified is in the writings of Miss Rand, and their finding such a view attractive, right, etc., can easily lead them to think that the particular arguments Miss Rand offers for the view are conclusive are adequate.
This is likely correct. Nozick, a libertarian political philosopher himself, is sympathetic to the some of the conclusions Rand draws, but finds himself unable to endorse the arguments presented. The ‘moral’ case for capitalism flounders in a morass of unjustified assumptions and leaps of inference, glossed over by a tone of material certainty. It seems plausible only to the extent that we appreciate her peculiar moral sensibility.
Her ‘metaphysics’ fare no better. This is all the more damning, since her value theory is meant to follow directly from her basic, indubitable axioms: identity, existence, and consciousness.
The abuses of ‘identity’ (“A is A”) have been singled out for particular criticism. Sidney Hook, writing in 1961, notes that:
The extraordinary virtues Miss Rand finds in the law that A is A suggests that she is unaware that logical principles by themselves can test only consistency. They cannot establish truth […] Swearing fidelity to Aristotle, Miss Rand claims to deduce not only matters of fact from logic but, with as little warrant, ethical rules and economic truths as well. As she understands them, the laws of logic license her in proclaiming that “existence exists,” which is very much like saying that the law of gravitation is heavy and the formula of sugar sweet.
The problem, in a nutshell, is that logical principles are devoid of genuine empirical content. One cannot derive particular facts from ‘A is A’ any more than one could conjure a slice of pizza from the Pythagorean theorem. Tautologies are meant to be vacuous. (Certainly, at least, public education is not a logical contradiction the same way a married bachelor, or a four-sided triangle, is.)
Logical technicalities aside, it is worth noting that the most important philosopher in the West since Aristotle has no mathematical or logical philosophy to speak of. Rand was writing in the immediate aftermath of the most fertile period of logical and mathematical development in human history. Her emphasis on ‘logic’ and the indubitable inevitability of her conclusions is made in the shadow of Frege, the set-theoretic paradoxes, and the Principia; of the debate over intuitionism, of the incompleteness proof and of the results of Tarsky, Church, Alonzo; and just at the dawn of paraconsistent logic (which rejects, inter alia, that it is always true that A is A).
Indeed the crisis in the foundations of mathematics, the work of Tarski on truth, the rejection of the law of excluded middle by Brouwer and his followers, Gödel’s proofs–the list could be multiplied–had no effect on her, if she was even aware of any of it. The Atlas Society’s guide to objectivism candidly admits this lacuna, in its entry on the topic of the philosophy of mathematics:
Ayn Rand’s identification of the nature of universals and her analysis of the process of abstraction have much to contribute to the philosophy of mathematics. There is, however, no Objectivist literature on this topic.
Still, the reader will be glad to hear that the problem of universals has been solved, along with the processes that underpin conceptual abstraction. For a philosopher who prized logic, she remained utterly ignorant of it until her death, and some of her most ardent followers are determined to remain so themselves: Peikoff disparages all non-Aristotelian logic as “inherently dishonest […] an explicit rebellion against reason and reality (and, therefore, against man and values).”
Nozick, again, is perfectly clear on the logical issue: Rand is wrong. But it is not only that Rand uses strictly logical principles to derive ethical and political conclusions, which simply cannot happen, but the means by which she goes about the deduction–should we be so indulgent to permit it—is itself a strange wealth of confusion and error:
The followers of Rand, for example, treat “A is A” not just as “everything is identical to itself” but as a kind of statement about essences and the limits of things. “A is A, and it can’t be anything else, and once it’s A today, it can’t change its spots tomorrow.” Now, that doesn’t follow. I mean, from the law of identity, nothing follows about limitations on change. The weather is identical to itself but it’s changing all the time. The use that’s made by people in the Randian tradition of this principle of logic that everything is identical to itself to place limits on what the future behavior of things can be, or on the future nature of current things, is completely unjustified so far as I can see; it’s illegitimate.
These ‘illegitimate uses’ are nothing short of extraordinary: John Galt, in Atlas Shrugged–Rand’s own mouthpiece, delivering the radio address than encapsulates her philosophical system–claims that
The source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A—and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival.
Nozick is exactly right in claiming that Rand leverages the ‘principle of identity’ to all kinds of strange metaphysical purposes, including very contentious–if not outright false–conclusions about essentialism. In Galt’s speech we see “A is A” turned into a statement about the essential ‘nature’ of humankind that carries with it the full logical weight of the putative axiom.
Obviously this doesn’t work: suppose we accept that “A is A” (in particular we are not dialetheists; there is certainly no physical theory which introduces terms that violate identity or non-contradiction, and we know this a priori). This implies nothing about man’s nature. Not even that man has a nature at all. Or that it is fixed. That it cannot be changed, or consciously altered.
Even if man has a ‘nature’ in Rand’s sense, our rational aspects are of a piece with our creative capacities, our imaginative selves, our empathetic abilities, our emotional landscape, our sexual drives: to the extent that Rand’s analysis of human nature as rational is meant to be descriptive of what we actually are, it is surely false.
This is arguably not what she means. We have instead a logically-deduced (yet normative) claim about, say, the rational, conscious apprehension of independent reality being central to ‘man’ and his survival–the only value. (Though, obviously, we don’t in fact survive on reason alone. We couldn’t.) This conclusion, obviously, does not follow, or can be justified by, the principle of identity, nor does it seem a particularly good way of going about determining how to structure human civilization.
This last point is perhaps the most crucial: apart from the details of her argument, and the arcane mysteries that her defenders beckon us enter (to learn about ‘measurement omission’ and the “law of identity applied to action” and other putative solutions to open problems), the most fundamental problem is the methodological assumption that reflection on ‘self-evident’ axioms can generate a host of inescapable moral, political, and economic truths.
Here, then, is a methodological digression, to provide a contrast.
My own politics are generally informed by the desire to live in a ‘good’ society. I’m pretty casual about what ‘good’ means, precisely: some kind of pluralist satisficing compromise borne of reflective equilibrium. Most of us want a society that is free, genuinely meritocratic, absent egregious social strife and inequality (for basic Rawlsian reasons), with just laws and a representative government and opportunities to develop one’s talents and interests without too much interference.
I like to make arguments based on comparative case studies, analysis of available data, incorporation of sundry pragmatic and practical considerations, various heuristic devices (that are admittedly fallible but reliable), with an eye both the desirability outcomes and the caveat that ends don’t always justify means. It’s not particularly elegant, but it’s reasonable and it works. I make no claim to perfect consistency, have no self-contained system, and pretend to no ultimate, objective answers.
Now contrast this with an axiomatic, a priori approach: where one begins with self-evident truths (or ‘first principles’) and then derives conclusions based on analysis of these: we might take private property as a fundamental concept, for instance, and conclude that we have no duties to the poor. In this we proceed as Hobbes did in his Leviathan, Spinoza in the Ethics, or as Rand does with her “three axioms.” As we saw above, from the assertion of indubitable truths (“existence exists” and so on) we conclude, at the end of a long derivation, that essentially the sole purpose of government is the defence of negative individual rights.
What is difficult to understand is why we should believe that reasoning from so-called ‘first principles’ can tell us anything at all about how to build and maintain something as complex and messy as a human society, with complex social, economic, political arrangements presided over by only partially rational creatures prone to outbursts of passion, crises of confidence, and known, predictable irrationalities.
Axiomatics are useful–more than useful–in many domains. Like in set theory, formal logic and mathematics. But the situation is subtle and messy even in these. A representative example: must we accept the axiom of choice? There are dozens of variations on the formal set-theoretic axioms: mathematicians often use the ZFC axioms, but many don’t.
Another simple example. For the better part of 2,000 years rejection of the Euclidean Parallel Postulate was deemed impossible–until the discovery of non-Euclidean geometries demolished its apodictic standing. If the situation is so difficult even at the level of mathematics and geometry, the standard-bearers of objective purity in human knowledge, what hope is there of deriving monetary policy from ‘A is A’–assuming such a project is even coherent?
In the hard sciences, contemporary physical scientists certainly don’t rely solely on axiomatics. Sure, some theoretical physicists proceed at an extreme level of mathematical abstraction; a certain measure of empirical input is nonetheless required (various physical constants, for example). From chemistry on up it’s perfectly obvious that axiomatics simply don’t work. And we know this for a fact: while quantum mechanics in principle allows us to calculate the properties of chemical systems without having to perform any lab experiments (via the Schrödinger equation) in practice the calculations are far too complex to solve except for the very simplest systems.
This is chemistry–again, a hard science. And then what? Upwards, to biology? Then psychology? Then sociology and political science? Economics? Rand is to make us believe that the axiomatic method can tell us profound truths about the incredibly more complicated, higher-order, non-linear complex systems involved in running a planet? From logic alone?
Note that the prima facie plausibility of any putative axioms has nothing to do with this criticism, which is that the deductive mode of reasoning is completely inapplicable to the topics considered. I don’t even need to examine whether ‘existence exists.’ There is no way Rand’s method is knowledge-producing.
Alan Greenspan testified before a senate committee in the aftermath of the financial crisis, in October of 2008. He admitted that
I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms […] Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.
Pressed by committee chair Henry Waxman, who asked pointedly “do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?” Greenspan answered: “Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.”
For many on the left, the sub-prime meltdown, financial crisis, and ongoing recession are proof positive that the laissez-faire, deregulatory approach is dead in the water. Rand’s followers have drawn the opposite conclusion: the crisis is the result of too much interference and the failure of governments to fully implement the measures they propose. Going half-way, the argue, simply will not work.
In this they may be right. In a landmark 1956 paper, The General Theory of Second Best, economists R. G. Lipsey and Kelvin Lancaster demonstrate a profound and surprising result: that market failures–that is, failure to achieve some specified optimality condition–may require de-optimization of other parameters. In other words, the “second-best” solution, when the best cannot be achieved, is not necessarily the next most similar to the best solution. The authors prove that it
is not true that a situation in which more, but not all, of the optimum conditions are fulfilled is necessarily, or is even likely to be, superior to a situation in which fewer are fulfilled […] if one of the Paretian optimum conditions cannot be fulfilled a second best optimum situation is achieved only by departing from all other optimum conditions.
Under one intuitive, and ultimately misleading, line of thought, any progress made towards an ‘ideal’ situation is, ipso facto, an improvement. Call this ‘ideal-state incrementalism’ (ISI). Suppose that it were true–per impossible–that Rand’s vision of a society of purely rational egoists, engaged in voluntary cooperation without any state interference would in fact be the best possible arrangement. Under the assumption of ISI, any society that more closely resembles the Randian ideal is better off than one which departs from it in more significant ways. But the theory of ‘second-best’ tells us that ISI is not always true: given some departure some ‘ideal’ conditions in one aspect, it does not follow that the best option is the one where all the other conditions are ideal.(In fact, the authors stress that we cannot know a priori what to do: a detailed, contextual analysis is required.)
Imagine the following toy model with three parameters: rationality, regulation, and redistribution. When the parameters are set to maximize rationality and minimize regulation and redistribution, the model achieves its optimal state–imagine, perhaps, these parameters can be set from 0 to 5, so that the ideal, optimal state is when we have the parameters at <5, 0, 0>.
Suppose humans are not always rational (or that information is imperfect, or any other of dozen plausible ways to deviate from the ideal case), so that the parameter value of human rationality is, inescapably, a mere , but we are free to set the parameters for regulation and redistribution. It is not the case that <3, 0, 0> is the next best solution. It might be <3, 2, 4>. Or something else entirely. The ideal-state incremental assumption supposes that outcome correlates in a linear fashion to proximity to the ideal state. But this is often false.
My presentation glosses over a number of more technical points. For present purposes we can ignore these and focus on the moral of the story: if the benefits of a Randian society are only tangible when certain onerous optimization conditions are met, then the value in pursuing such a society is proportional to the feasibility of its actual construction. And what are, honestly, the chances of this wondrous rational society? Slim, I suggest, to none. Now multiply this probability by the chance that Rand is right in the first place.
The methodological problem returns in an indirect fashion: if we cannot count on the description of some logical ‘ideal’ state to guide our policy choices–if it is not the case, in other words, that the correct thing to do is always to become more like Rand’s ideal, even assuming Rand’s ideals are correct–then we must proceed in some other way. I’ve outlined one such method above: messy, trial-and-error empirical work, principled yet fumbling, rigorous yet humble, necessarily imperfect and always adapting to contingency as it comes.
The Randian may object to all this that we presume outcome is somehow key to evaluating their position. This, they may protest, assumes a roughly utilitarian view, which they are keen to reject. The point of the Randian ideal is not that her views will prove to be of benefit to all once implemented, but that they are the only coherent moral views that are at all possible.
This is certainly a tactic many objectivists could adopt, if they are comfortable with abandoning the claim that the most moral society is also the most beneficial society, a view that has some currency in orthodox circles (most prominently in Leonard Peikoff’s interpretation of Rand). In any event, the objection presupposes that no amount of general welfare could possibly make up for even the slightest violation of Randian negative rights (as Rand writes in The Virtue of Selfishness, “there can be no compromise on moral principles”).
Yet surely, at some point, most of us would say that, even if a given right was perfectly genuine, there are cases when it can be violated. One man’s ‘right’ to hold a patent on a medicine sometimes yields to the suffering of millions.
The man will get over it. Things are complicated.
Rejection of the Randian weltanschauung is not tantamount to rejecting all the values espoused within it. Much can be said to commend individualism against conformity, and the virtues of entrepreneurship and self-reliance. But commitment to these values does not logically imply the minimalist state advocated by Rand (let alone opposition to, say, minimum wage laws). They merely add to our existing stock of values to reflect on and take into consideration when deliberating.
Rand should have taken more of a cue from Aristotle, who warned, in the second book of the Nicomachean Ethics, that virtues need to be balanced, for excess and deficiency destroy their virtuous nature:
Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate.
Aristotle’s first example, appropriately enough, concerns money:
With regard to giving and taking of money the mean is liberality, the excess and the defect prodigality and meanness. In these actions people exceed and fall short in contrary ways; the prodigal exceeds in spending and falls short in taking, while the mean man exceeds in taking and falls short in spending.
For Aristotle, virtue required a careful weighing–borne of experience–that was able to discern when a virtue became a destructive vice from either a lack or a surfeit. An excess of courage results in rashness. A lack of liberality, meanness. And so on. We can–and should–consider some of virtues Rand holds up as genuine virtues, that is, virtues with a mean, that Rand’s implacable and stark philosophy has distorted beyond recognition. For, in Rand’s view, there is no mean, no discernment, no compromise, no weighing, no evaluation, no gray area:
Morality is a code of black and white. When and if men attempt a compromise, it is obvious which side will necessarily lose and which will necessarily profit […] The cult of moral grayness is a revolt against moral values (The Virtue of Selfishness).
Nothing could be further from Aristotle, not because the doctrine of virtue ethics revels in moral ambiguity–it does not–, but because its methodology involves fallible heuristic deliberation and not absolute fiats: the virtuous man is like this, Aristotle suggests to us, providing practical examples and instructing us to look to those we consider virtuous for guidance so that we improve our character. Rand claims the moral man does this, laying down final rules and telling us they can never be transgressed. Context never matters.
There is nothing wrong with some measure of self-regard or egoism; and there is much to be celebrated in individual accomplishment. No opponent of Rand denies this. But the mean is the thing. To excess, the Randian virtues traits lead to a lack of empathy, a poverty of moral imagination, and an inability to recognize that individual accomplishment is always contextual, performed against a backdrop of happy opportunity and moral luck–and, all too often, a long history of ‘cooperation’ that can certainly not be termed ‘voluntary.’ Individualism, for all its merits, is no excuse for ignoring history. Or for glossing over the plain fact that human behaviour, considered in aggregate, is predictable, and that collective responses to contextual factors is, sometimes, the second-best we can do.
Whether or not any useful moral lessons may be drawn from Rand’s work may depend on individual temperament and ability to read with a grain of salt (or more). Poisoned as her work is by absolutism, dogma, and histrionics, it is perhaps best to leave well enough alone and read, instead, Little House on the Prairie if one hungers for stories of ruggedness and survival.
The fate of the recent movie adaptation of Atlas Shrugged provides an illustrative parable about the dangers of deviation from the Aristotelian mean.
In 1992, ten years after Rand’s death, investor and self-described objectivist John Aglialoro bought the rights to Atlas Shrugged for a million dollars, with the condition that the rights expire within twenty years should no movie be produced. Like many projects, the movie remained in what is termed ‘development hell’ for years–shuffling from writer to writer and studio to studio, with various names attached, actors dropping out, and several false starts. Eventually, as the rights were set to expire, the film was rushed to production with a poor script, little budget, and no famous actors.
Produced at a cost of roughly twenty million dollars, it took in less than five at the box-office. Critics deemed it a flop; even sympathetic audiences found it stilted and clunky. In other words, the rational self-interest of the movie producers–who were set to lose the rights to the film–ensured that a shoddy and mediocre money-loser would make it to cinemas. Perhaps if more focus had been put on, say, creativity, or collaboration, or the selfless dedication art requires–perhaps if Aglialoro had been able to put aside his investment, take the hit, and hand over the movie to more capable hands, the value of the brand might have been better served. As it is, Atlas Shrugged – Part 1 works better as its own cautionary tale about the values it espouses. (The forthcoming sequel, financed by a private debt sale, reminds us that even money-losers can get a free lunch if they serve the right interests).
In final analysis, for all Rand’s emphasis on non-conformity and individualism, the greatest irony is perhaps the sheer amount of charity money that her thought has attracted–in America, at least, it represents an absolutely unprecedented interest in metaphysical speculation, typically the domain of continental Europe.
Now perhaps Rand’s work truly constitutes the most important and greatest progress in philosophy since Plato and Aristotle, superseding Aquinas, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Russell, Wittgenstein, and all the rest. We should count ourselves lucky that the fortunate deign to enlighten us, relieve us of our intellectual torpor, provide us with the genuine grounds for an intellectually serious life free of parasitism, to celebrate the entrepreneur within, and, perhaps, just maybe, let little children get some real work experience. Once free of the encumbrances of a tyrannical collectivist nanny-state that forces unwilling and unwitting children to go to such a vicious and unjust imposition as taxpayer-funded grade school, perhaps the dark ages can be narrowly avoided. Lucky, indeed, that the rich should, just this once, exempt themselves from selfishness to educate pro bono.
Or maybe we should heed Machiavelli’s warning: “Politics,” he wrote, “have no relation to morals.”
He had in mind, particularly, the Borgias.