Objecting to Objectivism: A Rant about Ayn Rand

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan for his running mate has brought to the forefront the philosophies of Russian-born author Ayn Rand (1905-1982).  In her novels and essays, Rand laid out a philosophy she referred to as Objectivism.  Although Ryan is currently attempting to distance himself from Rand specifically due to her atheism and pro-abortion views, in the past he has very publicly embraced her Objectivist ideologies in regards to economics and capitalism.

I originally became intrigued with Ayn Rand’s philosophies about a decade ago, due to the adherence of comic book creator Steve Ditko to her principles.  A brilliant artist, in the early 1960s Ditko was the co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange at Marvel Comics.  After a falling out with Marvel, he left to work for various other companies, and eventually ventured into self-publishing.   His work took on a more and more Objectivist tinge over the years, culminating in his creation of such uncompromising vigilante crime-fighters as The Question and Mr. A.

Mr. A, by Steve Ditko
Mr. A, by Steve Ditko

I was very curious to learn who this Ayn Rand was, and what her Objectivist philosophies were.  I knew that Rand had written two novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.  However, each of these was several hundred pages long, and I admit that I did not think I had the patience or stamina to make my way through either book.  So instead I read Rand’s fifty page essay, “For the New Intellectual,” in which she sets down the tenets of Objectivism.

And, I have to say, I was quite awestruck by the sheer pomposity and arrogance with which Rand lays forth her ideas within “For the New Intellectual.”  At times it appears to be less of a foundation for an ideological movement than it does a smug, self-indulgent rant.

Rand offers up a bluntly simplistic summation of the entire history and philosophical outlook of humanity, basically regarding the two driving ideologies since the dawn of time as “Attila” and “the Witch Doctor,” i.e. those who impose an ideological system of belief by force & conquest, and those who impose it through superstition.

Rand seems to regard practically every movement throughout history as having been an aspect of either Attila or the Witch Doctor, or the pair working in complicity with one another.  The first significant worldwide break with either of these forces, in Rand’s view, is capitalism.

Rand lifts up capitalists upon a pedestal, looking upon them as intellectual giants who have helped raise humanity from the mire of pre-industrial times, and who have been rewarded for their noble efforts with nothing more than scorn and derision.

She regards the notion that the entrepreneurs of capitalism have a duty to society as an absurd idea.  Rand regards any form of altruism to be hideously unjust.  On several occasions, she likens society’s expectations of altruism to a primitive culture performing human sacrifices to the gods to bring benefit upon the tribe.  Except that, in her view, modern altruism causes even more suffering and misery.  Why should the capitalist be expected to give up the rewards of his endeavors to society, when he achieved those rewards solely through his superior intellect and driving abilities?

For the New Intellectual, by Ayn Rand
For the New Intellectual, by Ayn Rand

Rand’s worldview seems to have been shaped extensively by her early years.  Coming from a middle class Russian family, she witnessed her father losing everything to the Bolsheviks during the rise of the Soviet Union in 1917.  As a result, Rand appears to have developed a pathological hatred of socialism in any way, shape, or form.

As far as she is concerned, a mixed economy of capitalism and socialism will always fail, because any movement towards socialism, no matter how slight, will inevitably result in an economic system being totally subsumed by it.  She regards the natural outcome of socialism to be extreme suffering and misery, as witnessed in such “socialist societies” as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Capitalism, in Rand’s mind, can only work in pure, undiluted form, with absolutely no interference by the government.  As she regards it, “all the evils popularly ascribed to capitalism were caused, necessitated and made possible only by government controls imposed on the economy.”

What Rand completely fails to recognize is that human nature will inevitably corrupt attempts at pure capitalism, just as it does experiments in pure socialism.  Rand seems to think the intellectual giants of capitalism are at a mental pinnacle wherein they will always follow the path of reason, rather than that of irrationality and emotion.  She does not acknowledge that capitalists are just as susceptible to the lures of greed and power as any others.  Her whole underlying premise seems to be that capitalism is intrinsically good, and therefore anyone who practices pure capitalism will do good.

Rand, in denouncing altruism, writes of “man’s right to exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.”  But in doing so, she turns a blind eye to the capitalists of the Industrial Revolution who did sacrifice others to themselves in their exploitation of the working class.  Rand sees a vast difference between serfdom and a wage-paying job.  But just because one is given a salary does not automatically mean that one is not still being exploited.  There are different degrees of exploitation.

Speaking of degrees, there is an appalling lack of the appreciation of the complexity of morals in Rand’s philosophy.  She regards ethics and morality as a completely black & white affair, deriding any attempts to recognize other viewpoints and achieve consensus.  She doesn’t seem to appreciate the multicultural nature of the United States.  Compromise and understanding are crucial to holding this nation together.

Of course, Rand seems pretty well dismissive of any non-US society, and her statements occasionally contain rather racist undertones.  She refers to America as “the greatest, freest country on Earth” and despairs that “our wealth should be given away to the savages of Asia and Africa, with apologies for the fact that we have produced it while they haven’t.”  She also writes “Americans have known how to erect a superlative material achievement in the midst of an untouched wilderness, against the resistance of savage tribes.”

I think that Rand’s ideology is especially dangerous in this day and age.  America cannot survive on its own.  The world is now more connected than ever.  There are great inequities in wealth not just throughout the world, but within the United States itself, and these have inevitably resulted in anger and violence.  Some of this has exacerbated by the de-regulation of the financial industry and the increased return to a laissez-faire approach to capitalism during the Bush/Cheney years.

If we hope to bring peace and security to our nation, we need to stop being greedy, and become more altruistic.  A self-centered view like Rand’s will only result in placing us in opposition to and isolation from the rest of the globe.  It will also result in even further growing economic & social inequalities within the United States itself, and a widening of the already-gaping divide between the ultra-wealth and the remaining 99% of the population.  And that is something that will inevitably destroy us.