Posts Tagged ‘jennifer burns’

POSTSCRIPT: Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (pt. 2)

October 1, 2012

POSTSCRIPT:  Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (pt. 2)


In her interview on The Colbert Report, Rand scholar Jennifer Burns identifies three aspects of Rand’s philosophy that she considers vital for understanding its reception by American conservatives:  rationality, selfishness and laissez-faire capitalism.[1]  While conservatives generally like Rand for the latter two, they generally reject her views on rationalism.  For example, Paul Ryan has said that reading Ayn Rand is what inspired him to get into politics, and he requires his staff to read her fiction.  However, he also says that when he read her philosophy, Objectivism, he “of course” rejected it because of its atheism.  In other words, he, and most American conservatives who claim to be inspired by Ayn Rand, treats these three elements of her philosophy as independent modules, to be swapped in and out at will.  In the case of laissez-faire capitalism, this is not true.  Rand’s defense of capitalism is the conclusion of the rest of her philosophy.  Capitalism is the best economic system because it recognizes, affirms and rewards selfishness.  Systems that seek to repress selfishness ultimately destroy nations that adopt them.  Only capitalism, based on selfish striving, can generate the wealth that would be necessary to improve the lives of others.[2]  Anything else is simply criminal robbery of the rich, generating nothing good.[3]  Ultimately, any system other than pure laissez-faire capitalism is simply a step on the road to Stalinism.[4]  Either the individual is completely free of all controls and regulations, or the individual is a slave.  There is no middle ground.

Rand’s faith in capitalism is logically dependent, therefore, on her positive evaluation of selfishness.  This in turn is dependent on her definition of “selfishness” and its link to rationality.  As she writes:


            The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness—which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man—which means: the values required for human survival—not the values produced by the desires, the emotions, the “aspirations,” the feelings, the whims or the needs of irrational brutes, who have never outgrown the primordial practice of human sacrifices, have never discovered an industrial society and can conceive of no self-interest but that of grabbing the loot of the moment.


The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.[5]



So it is not just any selfishness, but only rational selfishness that Rand upholds.  Furthermore, that is the basis for her rational capitalism.  The rationally selfish person does not desire to exploit anyone.  The worker does not desire to rob the boss; neither does the boss wish to rob the worker.  The rationally selfish banker does not persuade poor people to take out loans they will not be able to repay, simply to get a bigger bonus; the rational banker explains the terms, risks and benefits of the loan and expects the rational customer to take it or not.  In such a rational world, there would be little need of regulations; the free market and the informed consumer would be enough.  And the rationally selfish person takes personal responsibility, which means he or she doesn’t attempt to shift the costs of his or her errors onto others.  Rand would say that applies, for example, to the old person who didn’t plan adequately for retirement; a rationally selfish person would not want Medicare or Social Security.  It would also apply to the millionaire banker who engaged in foolish or criminal trades; he or she would be liable for the losses to those he or she deceived.

As Burns points out, today’s conservatives like Rand for her defense of selfishness and capitalism; and as Weigel points out, politicians often simply grab snippets of quotes to use without regard to their context or true meaning.  And as I said, sometimes that matters, and sometimes it doesn’t.  What happens to selfishness when we take rationality out of the equation?  Quite simply, Objectivism collapses into Nietzschean nihilism.  If selfishness is not based on rationality, then it is based on whim; and that is the essence of Nietzsche’s subjectivism.[6]  And the whims of individuals naturally clash, so instead of the free and orderly market of fair traders Rand envisions, we end up with reciprocal robbery and caveat emptor.  And if you introduce religion into Nietzsche, that simply becomes a tactic in the struggle between wills to subjugate one another.  It is the philosophy of the underman, of the failure.

Most American conservatives would say they are not throwing out rationality; they are only adding religion to Rand’s essentially rational philosophy.  In much the same way, I am not killing you; I am just quickly adding an ounce of lead to your heart.  Religion is not rational; both its detractors and its adherents agree to that.  Rationality is what everyone can observe and agree to; it is the objective, the publicly discernable, the factual.  Rationality is the natural; religion is the supernatural.  When Paul Ryan, or any other politician claims to be defending rational selfishness while also defending belief in God, that politician is asserting the right to be irrational, and to set public policy based on whims, fantasies and/or wishful thinking.  You believe, as Ayn Rand did, that a woman should have control over her own body?  You are wrong; God told me that we men have the responsibility to defend the unborn person, which I know to be a person because God told me.  You believe tax money should not be spent to teach creationism because it isn’t rational?  You are wrong; God has told me that the world was created in a totally supernatural and unverifiable way, and I have every right to demand my particular religious belief be taught in public schools.

A fully rational society, like Rand describes, would probably be a pretty nice place to live.  Government would let you live your own life according to your own morals, instead of trying to impose values on you.  You would not be required to take care of the unborn embryo in your body, or the poor person outside your door; you would have every right to choose to do either.  Sellers of goods and services would not try to cheat you, and would freely take responsibility for their own mistakes; so there would be no need for government inspections of meat packing factories or of stock brokerages.

However, we do not live in this rational utopia, and it is unlikely that we ever shall.  First, it is clear to any unbiased observer that “rational” individuals by Rand’s standards are as rare as warm winter days in Wisconsin.  When people defend the right to be “selfish,” they are rarely if ever defending the right to be rational; more usually, they are defending the right to promote their own self-interests at the expense (or at least disregard) of others.  What for Rand is a principle of social harmony (like Kant’s Categorical Imperative or Spinoza’s confidence that rational people’s interests won’t really conflict) becomes, for many of Rand’s self-professed disciples, something more like Callicles’ notion that the superior man should live as a wolf among sheep, using his wits and strength to exploit others at will.  Rand complains that this is a distorted meaning of “selfishness,” foisted on us by the preachers of “altruism” (primarily Christianity).  She admits that her definition of “selfishness” is not the usual one, although she argues that hers is more correct.[7]  In reality, it has more in common with Kant’s definition of autonomy than it does with what we commonly think of as “selfish;” Rand comes close to quoting Kant’s Categorical Imperative herself.[8]  But neither Kant nor Rand would have any room for the voice of God overruling natural reason, universal logic and the normal laws of causality.  To be “selfish,” or “self-directed” as Kant would put it, is to trust reason and reason alone, not any outside authority and least of all a supernatural one.  And it is to desire that oneself should be judged by those same standards, and to be willing to condemn oneself if one fails to live up to them.  Very, very few are willing to abide by the strictures of rationality, or even capable of putting their own desires and prejudices aside long enough to try.

Second, since American conservatives continue to let God into the conversation, there is no rational way to resolve conflicts.  The same Bible that is used to justify persecuting homosexuals or banning abortion also denounces  greed and selfishness.  “He who has two shirts must give to him who has none.”  Both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures put severe limits on what one can do with one’s own property, in the interest of protecting the poor.  Every Bible passage that can be used to argue that the poor are lazy and/or dishonest can be countered by one that claims the poor are God’s special children, victims of oppression by the rich, and/or unfortunate brothers and sisters who deserve our love and help.  If anything, the number of Bible passages on the liberal end swamps the conservative side, which is why Rand rejected Christianity as an irrational, mystical attack on selfishness for the sake of “altruism” and the self-sacrifice/suicide of the individual.

When politicians claim to be arguing in favor of Ayn Rand’s rational selfishness, they are generally either self-deceived or lying.  That is a problem because Rand minus rationality is not “Rand Lite;” it is nihilism.  Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and the others do not offer us Ayn Rand improved by the blessing of Jesus; they offer us mere subjectivism, irrational whims and the clash of will-to-power with will-to-power, disguised as religious prophecy and moral crusade.  It is no wonder that our politics today consists almost entirely of point-scoring, excoriating Them for doing something We praised last week, ad hominem attacks, red herrings, circular reasoning and every other logical fallacy ever cataloged.  We have to rely on emotional manipulation and subterfuge, when we have lost faith in rationality and facts to lead us to solutions that all or even most can share.

[2] Ayn Rand, “Collectivized Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York:  Penguin Group USA, Inc. 1964) p. 97

[3] “Collectivized Ethics,” pp. 95-6.

[4] “The Monument Builders,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 100-101

[5] Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 34

[6] “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 33

[7] “Introduction,” The Virtue of Selfishness

[8] “Objectivist Ethics,” p. 30

Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (Postscript) pt. 1

September 24, 2012

POSTSCRIPT:  Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP?


I recently had three doses of Ayn Rand:  listening to a panel discussion on The Diane Rehm Show, an interview with Jennifer Burns on The Colbert Report, and watching The Fountainhead.  The two discussions raised a very interesting question, which the movie began to address.  These three together prompted me to reexamine my earlier discussions on Ayn Rand and the modern conservative movement in the U.S.

The Diane Rehm Show focused on Rand’s influence on Republican politicians, including Paul Ryan.[1]  The panelists discussed Rand’s philosophy, the various elements of it and whether she would support Paul Ryan today.  Jennifer Burns, author of Goddess of the Marketplace, recounted Rand’s rejection of Ronald Reagan and her warning people against him, comparing this to the similar views expressed by Ryan.  Asked whether she would support Paul Ryan, Burns replied:


I think it’s a pretty safe bet that she would not. We have a lot of evidence, as much evidence as one can have from a deceased historical figure on views of analogist politicians. So one of the last things she ever published was a denunciation of Ronald Regan and it was specifically because Ronald Regan mixed religion and politics.

And because he supported the abolition of abortion so he was pro-life and she wrote a letter to her followers saying, “Reagan is the worst kind of conservative. He’s a dangerous man who’s mixing religion and politics, who doesn’t understand the fundamental importance of the separation of church and state. Don’t vote for him and don’t support him.” So I think she would look at Paul Ryan in much the same way as someone who, while he sounds close to her in economic and fiscal matters, has really missed a lot of her larger messages about the proper role of government.



Journalist David Weigel, asked about the way conservatives pick and choose the elements they like from Rand, had a slightly different view.  He said:



There are no avowed atheist Republicans in Congress. I think in the speech Jennifer’s talking about, which she — what Rand referred to as the god-family tradition swamp which is not something that you ever hear a Republican say. The way they square this circle is by saying, government when it intervenes is going to mess up. When it intervenes in charity it’s going to screw that up.

But take government out of the way and churches are going to fill the gap. Churches are going to provide what poor people need, individual relationships are going to pull people out of bad economic straits. That’s how they get around and I like the way that Jennifer’s putting that. I think it’s coherent in a couple of ways. It’s not a coherent adaptation to everything that she says but that’s not uncommon in politics. I mean, a lot of politics is aphorism and taking a quote and using it for your own purposes.

And that’s, you know, when Ryan talks about Rand, it’s not in the greatest detail. He just mentions John Galt’s speech, some passages in the novel about the meaning of money. They’re interesting, but I think, when people refer to “Atlas Shrugged,” they’re referring to a novel that takes quite some time to read, it’s a 1,000 pages long and the way that it gets into politics is just in a couple metaphors and analogies. So I think it’s fair they take some of that and just, you know, staple it to the other things they believe as religious, you know, as religiously influenced conservative politicians.



That is, of course, the question I asked at first:  is it legitimate to take elements of Rand’s philosophy, and not others?  Is it legitimate to borrow from Rand’s philosophy and Christianity, and claim to be honest to both?

It is not necessary to accept everything a philosopher says to feel indebted to that philosopher, or to reasonably claim to be a student.  Sometimes, there may be some minor part of the philosopher’s thought one chooses to ignore.  There have been many who thought of themselves as Platonists or Neoplatonists, but not all endorsed Plato’s ideas on censoring the arts.  Other times, a philosopher may have large parts of his or her thought that can be detached.  Many thinkers are influenced by Kant’s ethics, without having any interest in his epistemology.  But there are key concepts that are really essential to a philosopher’s thought, such that if one of those concepts is missing the whole thought is changed into something else.  If you decide you really like Aquinas, except for the Aristotleanism in his thought, you aren’t really a Thomist; you’re an Augustinian.  Returning to the question of Rand’s thought, what is truly essential, truly foundational in her thought, such that if it is removed the whole thing becomes something else?  What happens to her thought, if you do try to adopt Objectivism without that key element?

In watching The Fountainhead, I could see why someone like Paul Ryan might think he could just pick parts from Rand willy-nilly without the whole thing collapsing.  In a piece of philosophical fiction like that, there is dramatic development rather than systematic development.  Just as the movie-makers chose to ignore the atheistic elements and to only vaguely hint at the rape scene, so too a reader might selectively choose which scenes and lines were personally interesting, while ignoring others.  The character of Howard Roark is very compelling, and in some ways admirable.  He is creative, he is true to himself and his principles and his art, he demands no break or mercy for himself.  He is hard on others but even harder on himself, insisting that he will neither exploit nor be exploited.  He is called “selfish” by others, and does not dispute the word; but his claim that all interactions between people should be free exchanges rather than any sort of compulsion is the opposite of what most of us normally mean by “selfishness.”[2]  The movie is a celebration of the importance and nobility of the individual creative spirit, and an indictment (if not a straw-man slander) of “collectivism” and the forces of conformity.

Philosophical fiction can be very valuable.  It gives the writer the opportunity to present the abstract concepts in a more concrete and lively form.  Engaging the reader or viewer by head and heart together might help some understand concepts that they would misapply if they only had the intellectual side alone, and tried to integrate these concepts into their own affective existence.  On the other hand, philosophical fiction has limits and dangers.  The writer doesn’t necessarily have to present opponents fairly or accurately, and doesn’t have to present possible problems or flaws accurately.  The Hero is opposed by Villains.  The villains can be as despicable, stupid and ineffectual as the writer wants, and the hero’s plans and principles will always work out in the end.  It is easy to get swept up in the dramatic presentation, and to fail to ask the critical questions.  How many people really would say of themselves, as Toohey does, that they deliberately praise and cultivate mediocrity?  I’ve known some who did, but none who had the self-awareness to fully realize just what they were doing, and none who would have had the honesty to admit it to anyone else if they did ever realize it.  An insane tyrant like Stalin might have done so, but a supposedly typical newspaperman in America?  Roark may rape Dominque, but it’s okay because she falls in love with him because of it; this may be likely in a romance novel but in real life, such behavior is beyond abysmal.  But more concerning to the philosopher, in the film or novel ideas are weighted by their dramatic value, not their intellectual priority.  Roark’s claim that he wishes only to interact with others in a free exchange of equals is a clear statement of one of the essentials of Rand’s philosophy; but if I hadn’t first read her philosophical essays, I likely would have missed the full significance of that part.  Roark’s rationality comes through, somewhat, in his devotion to principles and to architecture; but the full ethical significance of it is really overwhelmed by the overarching themes of genius versus mediocrity and individualism versus the herd. The connections between his creativity, his devotion to his art, his willingness to labor in menial obscurity rather than to design products the marketplace demands, his invitation of martyrdom and his insistence on treating everyone as an equal rather than dominating where he can, all these connections are never made explicit.  To understand why Rand thinks the characters make sense and their motivations are believable, it is necessary to read more than her fiction.

To be continued….

[2] Ayn Rand, “The Fountainhead,” (film) Warner Brothers Pictures, 1949