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Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Now that Mitt Romney has selected Paul Ryan as his running mate, it behooves bloviators with some philosophical training, among whom I count myself, to take a closer look at the thinker who is, by his own testimony, Ryan's inspiration.  I refer, of course, to Ayn Rand, the twentieth century Russian-American novelist and essayist whose fervent embrace of laisser-faire capitalism, given fictional voice in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, has inspired the political passions and wet dreams of several generations of American right-wingers.  Rand is, in some ways, an odd figure to be venerated by contemporary conservatives, inasmuch as she was a convinced atheist who rejected the use of force, but her detestation of anything having a whiff of "collectivism" about it sweeps away any doubts that a thoughtful reactionary might harbor.
My own engagement with Rand's writings has been rather episodic.  It began in the Fall of 1953, when, as a nineteen year old graduate student cramming for General Exams [called "Prelims" in the Harvard Philosophy Department], I began to have doubts about the career on which I was embarking.  Sitting alone in my basement room in William James Hall, I turned to large works of heroic fiction as a source of guidance.  After plowing through Moby Dick ["It's about this whale," to quote a famous movie line], I found my way to The Fountainhead. 

I am afraid I came to Rand too late to be inspired, or even intrigued.  Having already read deeply in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, and Kant, I found Rand pretty thin stuff.  So I pulled myself together, passed my exams, and did not look back.

That was pretty much it for me and Rand until 1968.  By then I was at Columbia, but that year I was visiting at Rutgers, in nearby New Brunswick.  After class one day in an undergraduate course on Ethics, a young, thin, rather timid student approached my desk and with an apologetic air, offered me a worn, obviously much read paperback.  "I will give this to you," he said hesitantly, "if you promise to read it."  There was obviously nothing to do but thank him profusely and promise to get right to it.  The book was The Virtue of Selfishness, a collection of essays by Rand and her epigone, Nathaniel Brandon.

Four years later I was at the University of Massachusetts, charged with teaching an Introduction to Philosophy for a hundred students.  I assigned Gabriel Kolko's Wealth and Power in America, some readings by Marx, Betty and Theodore Roszak's Masculine/Feminine, and Robin Morgan's Sisterhood is Powerful.  In an effort to maintain some semblance of objectivity [so to speak], I also assigned The Virtue of Selfishness.  This was the Sixties [everything came a little late to the Pioneer Valley], and I assumed that the students would all groove on the Marx, so I really busted my butt giving the most forceful, interesting, positive lectures on Rand I could manage.  Imagine my chagrin when the hour exams came in and I discovered that I was talking not to a horde of budding Marxian collectivists but to a raging mob of Objectivists!  I try to assure myself that my lectures were quite ineffectual and that the students had all come to UMass already enrolled in the Right Wing, but the small voice of conscience suggests that I may actually have had a hand in fostering what eventually became The Tea Party.  Oh well.
A few quotes from the lead essay of The Virtue of Selfishness, "The Objectivist Ethics," will convey accurately enough the line Rand is pushing.  "The Objectivist ethics," she writes, "proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness [italics in the original]. ... The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. ... The principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material.  It is the principle of justice."  [all italics in the original.  She rather liked italics.]  All of this, Rand claims, quoting from a speech by the protagonist in her novel, Atlas Shrugged, derives from "the principle of identity -- A is A."  Kant would have been interested to learn that the fundamental principles of ethics are analytic! 

I want to spend most of my energies in this post discussing the political significance of Rand's theories, but since she herself treated her novels as occasions for immensely long declamatory speeches barely masquerading as plot elements, it might be appropriate to say just a word or two of a literary critical nature about her writings.  Atlas Shrugged  and The Fountainhead are both vast, gassy, romantic works perfectly designed to captivate an adolescent audience.  They might be described as what would have resulted if Jacqueline Susann had been bowled over by Nietzsche rather than Lady Chatterley's Lover.  
Rather oddly, when I think of Rand my mind turns to The Brothers Karamazov.   You will recall that Ivan, under the baleful influence of nineteenth century Western liberal thought, is given to saying that "all things are permitted."  Now Ivan has a good Russian soul, and does not, in his heart of hearts, believe that, but his bastard half brother Smerdyakov hears Ivan saying these things and takes them to heart, eventually [spoiler alert] killing their father, old man Karamazov.  Rand read some Hayek and, like Smerdyakov, took it to heart, with what turned out to be equally unfortunate results.

Rand's elevation of market exchange to the highest level of moral excellence is more or less what you could imagine an impressionable Russian emigrée would take away from a glancing acquaintance with Léon Walras' theory of tâtonnement.  In light of her Nietzschean novelistic celebration of the lonely creative genius [an architect, for example], her identification of the trader as the quintessential moral man [they are always men in Rand's writings] is rather odd, for the trader, qua trader, makes nothing.  He or she simply swaps something for something that someone else is offering in the marketplace.
But what is truly odd, and in fact deeply self-contradictory, is the embrace of Rand by such American right-wingers as Paul Ryan.  The moral, economic, and political doctrine that Rand is unconsciously parodying is echt nineteenth century laisser-faire liberalism.  [For a truly brilliant, totally self-aware send-up of this philosophy from the left, see Paul Goodman's riotously funny novel, Empire City.]  The true laisser-faire liberal has no religion, no politics, no traditions, no sense at all of the situatedness of human existence.  To quote more or less Michael Oakeshott's great line, he strives to live each day as though it were his first, and thinks that to form a habit is to fail.  It would never cross the mind of a true laisser-faire liberal so much as to have an opinion about abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception, or prayer in schools, and he certainly would not undertake to legislate about such matters, for whatever position he took might cost him business.   Indeed, ostensibly serious libertarian economists with no grasp of historical fact have actually argued seriously that racial discrimination is impossible in a true free market, inasmuch as discrimination might drive up wages by limiting the pool of available workers.  [The truth, as anyone familiar with post Civil-War history knows, is that White workers struck devil's bargains with employers, accepting lower wages in exchange for the exclusion of the former slaves from the labor market.]

Paul Ryan is a Roman Catholic whose family made a good deal of money over half a century off of government contracts for building the interstate highway system.  To this day it feeds at the federal trough, getting defense-related dollars.  In every way conceivable, Ryan the man is totally in violation of the Objectivist ethical theories pushed by Rand.  It has become a central tenet of the consensus gentium in recent decades that American conservatives are deep thinkers who, in their think tanks, come up with new ideas to replace the tired habits of liberal pols.  Paul Ryan, we are told, is the intellectual leader of the Republican Party.  I think we should pause just a bit before embracing our very own Smerdyakov.


Don Schneier said...

Rand's slapping the term 'Objectivist' on a subjective principle like Egoism is where Philosophy meets Comedy. But, to Rand's credit, she, unlike her sibling ersatz Nietzschean, Leo Strauss, she does not bother to defend the principle 'I lie, therefore I am noble'.

Michael said...

Professor Wolff, do you have any thoughts about what explains the tendency for the American right wing to embrace both religious fundamentalism and paeans to free markets?

Most of the time, I attribute it to the lingering effects of the Cold War: the Soviets were anti-capitalist, of course, and, by the way, officially atheist. So, the American conservative movement found itself inclined to set itself against both of those things at once. When I'm feeling less charitable, however, I think that it's all a big scam by the wealthy to get poor people to go against their interests in the name of God.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I have brooded over that a good deal, for obvious reasons. Thomas Frank wrote an interesting book about the subject [WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS?]. The "brainwashing by rich scam-artists" theory is attractive, butin the end, I think, implausible all by itself. There ought to be a limit to how much and how often you can get people to vote flatly against their naked self-interest. As Frank rather humorously remarks, the poorwhites charge the castle with their pitchforks, shouting, "We are not going to take it any more! Cut the taxes of the rich!"

I think something more complicated is at work. America is becoming not merelty a class society but almost a caste society, in which an educated, affluent [and Black as well as White] minority flourish while the rest stagnate in a society whose popular culture by and large mocks both their religion and the cultural ways. The wealthy play on this successfully, but the roots of the resentment and anger are there, and are real. It is not fun to be one of the 70% for whom a college degree is beyind reach, who find themselves portrayed unflatteringly in the entertainment media, who suffer the highest unemployment during downturns and who have the sense that others, luckier, better educated, seemingly favored, do well. Clinging to religion [and guns, of course], hating the direction society is going, not even being allowed to express with impunity angry and negative feelings about Blacks, Hispanics, Gays, women, et al., is a bitter experience. With the decline of the union movement and the split between the college educated and the rest, anything like progressive solidarity seems to be a lost dream. That, I think, is some of why it is that so many Americans regularly and mysteriously vote against their own economic interest.

The blind rage at the Affordable care Act ["Obamacare"] is a case in point. Who figures to benefit the most from the ACA? The rich? Hardly. The well-employed, with their good work-related health coverage? No. It is precisely the people whom the act is designed to help.

P. J. Grath said...

I think so many Americans vote against their present self-interest because they imagine that one day they will be rich themselves. In that imaginary future, they aren't voting against self-interest at all--unlikely as it is that any significant group of those on the bottom are going to claw their way to the top.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is a bitter irony, PJ, since upward mobility is lower in the US than in most other advanced capitalist countries.

NotHobbes said...

On a par with Cameroon and Guyana; appalling

Charles Pigden said...

I must say I really enjoy thinking of Rand as Smerdyakova (junior) to Hayek's Ivan. This make me wonder - did she ever write about Dostoevsky?

Seth said...

"They might be described as what would have resulted if Jacqueline Susann had been bowled over by Nietzsche rather than Lady Chatterley's Lover."

I was thinking along similar lines just yesterday. Rand's novels are like "Nietzsche for Dummies" composed as pulp romances.