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Oct. 20 2009 - 4:30 am | 138 views | 0 recommendations | 6 comments

Getting Ayn Rand Objectively Wrong

Hendrik Hertzberg is a talented writer, and his blog at The New Yorker is definitely worth reading. Exceptional recent entries include remarks on the death of William Safire and this fascinating mini-history of Germany’s Social Democratic Party.

Hard to say how a man so consistently informed could permit himself this lapse in a post on Ayn Rand:

As a political ideology, Objectivism, which has exerted a tremendous influence on the American right, is a vulgar inversion of vulgar Marxism; it teaches that all economic (and moral) value is the creation (and province) of rich people, while everybody and everything else (the poor, of course, but also workers and the government) is in every way a parasite. The proof of the superiority of the rich? They have more money.

What an utter misrepresentation of Objectivism. The ideology is known to most of its adherents through Ms. Rand’s two most popular novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. It’s been awhile since I’ve read either, but if memory serves, the moral hero in The Fountainhead spends most if not all of the book poor — certainly he is poorer than the commercially successful architect portrayed as an immoral intellectual fraud. There is also a multimillionaire media mogul character who is portrayed as the inferior of the obviously financially poorer protagonist.

In Atlas Shrugged, uber-rich railroad tycoon James Taggart is the greatest villain in the book. His less wealthy sister Dagny is his moral superior. So is vastly less wealthy Eddie Willers. The moral hero, John Galt, is a manual laborer who refuses to sell his uber-efficient motor on the open market because he regards it as corrupt.

A simplified but basically accurate distillation of Objectivism: using one’s mind or labor to create actual value is the root of all economic and moral worth. Having more money isn’t itself proof of anything. It is astonishing how glibly folks dismiss Ayn Rand, whose flawed system of thinking isn’t mined for its insights, as is the case with other philosophers. Instead all her work is dismissed as though it must be judged as a package that cannot be disaggregated.

This is, incidentally, something that Ayn Rand herself asserted — that one must either embrace her whole philosophy or reject it entirely. This most dubious proposition is the single aspect of her oeuvre that her critics seem to accept without question.


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    You are spot on. Some people think that by dropping the names Rand, Marx and Greenspan together, they have actually said something. Anyone who actually understands what Rand wrote knows that is not the case. Let’s call Hertzberg’s puff piece what it is: useless.

    The Chait article starts out somewhat better, yet still slips into the usual errors about Rand, involving Nietzsche, cults, and a premature announcement of the failure of Objectivism as a cultural movement.

    They should both read Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Market and get educated. However, they would probably only notice that she took amphetamines.

    Jeff Montgomery

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    Note: In other words, Chait read it but still got Rand wrong.

  3. collapse expand

    I’m definitely not an economist, and my exposure to Rand has been reading Atlas Shrugged three or four times, along with the occasional web post about her. I agree that the message should be separated from the messenger. I also agree that one should not discard a whole train of thought because some of its contents are questionable. That said, I also would hate to live in a world where Objectivism was completely embraced. I know the rights of the individual are supposed to be sacrosanct, but when my self-interest is my only morality, how long will I really be worried about my neighbor’s rights? We have a whole wealth of history to draw on that says not for very long.
    I just don’t see how an entire society following Objectivism could avoid destroying itself. By all means though, if you think I’m wrong let me know. I doubt you’ll make me a convert, but at least I’ll have learned something.

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    Conor Friedersdorf is a writer, a Californian by upbringing, and a nomad at present. Refresh his page often.

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