Bryan Caplan  

Join the Party: Why You Should Celebrate Rand's 100th

PRINT
Manne More Than Ever... Value and Exchange...

Today is Ayn Rand's one hundredth birthday, and I want to party down. I probably wouldn't be a professor if it weren't for her, and even if I were, I doubt I would be having a fraction of the fun.

But when I have a party, I like all my friends to come. And the fact is, many of the thinkers I respect don't think too highly of Ayn Rand. I know Robin Hanson doesn't, and I suspect Bill Dickens doesn't either. My blogging goal this week is to persuade all my favorite Rand nay-sayers to join the festivities. Preview of my next three posts:

1. Ayn Rand was an excellent novelist. She is one of the greatest of the Russian philosophical novelists, in the tradition of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Yes, Rand's characters exemplify philosophical positions. But she pulls it off; her characters - including the villains - are compelling, not "preachy" or "wooden."

2. Rand was a wise philosopher. She stood up for the obvious - there is a real world out there, and the best way to understand it is by rational thought - when the obvious bizarrely fell out of intellectual fashion. More creatively, she asked hard questions about the morality of selfishness and the welfare state that deserve the attention of every thoughtful person.

3. Rand was an insightful social scientist. A casual reading of Atlas Shrugged shows that she got the essence of general equilibrium theory. She loves to trace the indirect ripple effects of economic shocks, both positive (the invention of Rearden Metal) and negative (a new law forbidding people from owning multiple businesses). But a casual reading underestimates her contribution to social science. Rand's general equilibrium model encompasses both markets and politics. The invention of Rearden Metal does far more than change the economy; it also affects public opinion, which affects government policy, which in turn feeds back into the economy.

If Rand has so much to recommend her, why the hostility? Non-leftists rarely do well in intellectual popularity contests, but even thinkers who broadly agree with Rand express distaste for her. The main reason, I have little doubt, is that she had a touchy personality, and lots of sour and dogmatic followers. I doubt I could have stayed friends with her for long. But that's a flimsy reason to snub her work.

The secondary reason, I suspect, is that disappointment with Rand as a human being has led critics (many of them former admirers) to apply unreasonably high standards to her work. Yes, many of her philosophical arguments are question-begging. Shocking... unless you've read the work of Descartes, Locke, Kant, or Mill. They all make plenty of embarrassingly bad arguments. If you don't want to dismiss their whole subject matter, you've got to judge philosophers based on their best work and/or the novel questions they raise. And by that standard, Rand more than holds her own.

Not convinced yet? Well, the last thing Rand would have wanted would be for you to celebrate her birthday on faith. So tune in to my next three posts and see if I can't give you a good reason to raise your glass to a precocious, wide-eyed girl born in Czarist Russia a hundred years ago today.


Comments and Sharing





TRACKBACKS (12 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/192
The author at NIF in a related article titled Ground Hog Day writes:
    Today's Dose of NIF! [Tracked on February 2, 2005 10:24 AM]
The author at The Fly Bottle in a related article titled Happy Rand Day! writes:
    Today is Ayn Rand's 100th birthday. Bryan Caplan, who is smarter than you are, defends Rand's legacy at the EconLog. I especially like this bit: Yes, many of her philosophical arguments are question-begging. Shocking... unless you've read the work of... [Tracked on February 2, 2005 10:48 AM]
The author at Walter In Denver in a related article titled Happy Birthday writes:
    Today is Ayn Rand's 100th. Bryan Caplan promises So tune in to my next three posts and see if I can't give you a good reason to raise your glass to a precocious, wide-eyed girl born in Czarist Russia... [Tracked on February 2, 2005 11:04 AM]
The author at Catallarchy in a related article titled The Rand Centennial writes:
    Various people have commented today on Ayn Rand's 100th birthday, including - * Bryan Caplan * Alex Tabarrok * Tyler Cowen * Roderick T. Long * Russell Roberts * Will Wilkinson * Radley Balko has some links up As Tyler states, she made a g... [Tracked on February 2, 2005 11:01 PM]
COMMENTS (15 to date)
Dennis writes:

"The secondary reason, I suspect, is that disappointment with Rand as a human being has led critics (many of them former admirers) to apply unreasonably high standards to her work."

That is probably true. But at the same time, to some extent, it his her own fault. She promises quite a lot when it comes to solving some of the greatest philosophical problem and she also claims that she have solved them (the is-ought dichomoty for instance). But I'm not even convinced that she understood all those problems in the first time.

JT writes:

"Ayn Rand was an excellent novelist."

You have got to be kidding me. I have only read "The Fountainhead" and found it embarrassingly bad, from the clunky prose to the cartoonish characters to the unsubtle, axe-grinding treatment of her themes. And I say that as an admirer of many of her ideas. You're only detracting from your credibility by defending her as a novelist.

Randy writes:

I think Atlas Shrugged is one of the greatest books ever written. A basic weakness, however, is Rand's disrespect for pragmatism. She sees the looters as the enemy and unreasonable. She devotes much time to slamming those who point out the limits of human knowledge, claiming that they are part of the problem. A pragmatist could tell her that looting is not unreasonable. Looting works. That's why looting and those who advocate it are so common. Which is not to say that they are not the enemy. It fact, it reinforces the fact that they are the enemy - looting is a conscious, rational, decision.

I have seen this time and again in classical liberal writing. The idea that theft is wrong, and that if this can only be demonstrated to the thieves that they will stop. Theft isn't wrong. It works.

I've tried to read Atlas Shrugged a couple of times, but it's just too horribly written. I can't help but laugh at how amateurish it was.

However, Barbara Branden's biography of Rand--The Passion of Ayn Rand--is fascinating. It reads like a novel. The movie made from it is also very good.

Randy writes:

Patrick,

Like the Bible, it depends on how you read it. Its a bad novel, but a great work of moral philosophy.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

Never have read a word which Rand had ever written, and never suffered any interest to do so. I have formed my opinion of her solely from what Others have written of her. She may have been a captivating person, novelist, and philosopher; I and the World can live without her. lgl

Scott Clark writes:

I would be happy to join Prof. Caplan and anyone else's celebration of Rand's life and work. She was so powerful/influential/controversial because she cut right to the heart of the matter, especially when it came to exposing socialism as inherently antithetical to human life and progress.

JT may consider her novels as "clunky, cartoonish, unsubtle, and axe-grinding" but they sure have been commercially successful (read: people are willing to trade hard earned money to buy these books)and they continue to influence generations of entreprenuers, architects, business people, etc.

Happy birthday, Ayn.

fling93 writes:

I only started reading one of her books (don't remember which, but it wasn't a novel), but I just couldn't get very far because I just couldn't stand the fact that it was obvious she had absolutely no respect at all for opposing ideas and viewpoints.

Personally, I don't think it's possible to learn very much if you don't take into account the possibility that intelligent people can come to different conclusions and have such a knee-jerk reaction to things you don't agree with (true wisdom lies in knowing that you don't know and all that). And in my mind, you can't be a good teacher if you're not a good learner. I won't read a blog for that reason, so why would I read a whole book? I'm a slow reader, so my to-read pile just keeps growing.

Or are her novels any better?

Her characters aren't preachy? What on earth was John Galt going on about for 125,424,603,245 pages towards the end of Atlas Shrugged?

Geoffrey Brand writes:

Happy 100th to you to Bryan …

If it weren’t for Ms. Rand I would have never read a single word on philosophy.
I still would have socialist / almost communist economic leanings.
Nor would I have entered the program at George Mason.

It is indeed something to celebrate.

Yes she had her issues……
She was personally abrasive. Did not tolerate dissent.
and held grudges against people for life.
But.. Hey I never met the woman. A lot of great artists are a**holes in life.
And she is great whether you agree with her or not..
at least by the measure of the number of people who have read her work.

I agree that some of the Randdroids (orthodox followers) are a bit extreme, some are a little scary.
But I firmly believe that the more people agree with her ideas in general,
the better, happier and more prosperous the world will be.

GB

David Innes writes:

I suppose I got off on the wrong foot with Ayn Rand. Back in the mid-1970's when I was first tried living on my own my urban apartment building was full of all these junkies and former junkies who thought Rand was a great source of justification for their completely self-centered egoistic lifestyle.

They were totally contemptuous of anyone they took advantage of to pay for their habits as, by definition if they were willing to help them they were unworthy of respect or consideration. As long as they saw themselves scamming instead of asking for legitimate help they believed they were completely independent and self-sufficient.

They were all surprisingly clear about the difference between being dependant on drugs, which they saw as an entirely internal situation, and being dependant on others. They were pretty skillful at explaining that their sometimes degrading behavior when suffering from the urgency of withdrawal was the result of intensified focus on their primal desires.

They were also really into bands like Journey and Rush, which I saw as yet another sign that opiates and barbiturates cause brain damage. However this week I learned, via Reason's Hit & Run, that the band Rush acknowledged Rand on one of their album covers so perhaps it's Ayn Rand that causes brain damage.

In the early 1980's I finally made it to college where I was assigned The Fountainhead. Maybe it was just the memory of all those junkies, but I wasn't impressed with her essentially self-confining approach to human intercourse.

I appreciate that she lived in what I think of as the Soviet-era world of company-men-as-disposable-cogs, and that in that context the only alternative to irrelevant conformity may have been stubbornly selfish Notes-From-Underground-like individuality. To that extent (only) I can appreciate her as an early pioneer of the 60's era "If it feels good do it" mentality. If my only two choices today were assembly-line-age conformity or Randian egoism I'd go with Rand every time. But that's like saying if I had a choice between the Guy Lombardo's Orchestra and the New Christie Minsterals I'd buy a tambourine. Rand isn't the only choice anymore and almost every other choice is objectively better in the sense that they offer more ways to interact without fundamentally compromising one's integrity.

I still don't see how she resonates with anyone anymore except those old junkies and other sub-platonic losers trying to convince themselves that the stuff moving around on their cave walls are imperfect shadows of ideal forms and not visual manifestations of induced dementia.

But what do I know, I prefer Hannah Arendt who at least had the decency not to write novels.

As for the contention that Rand was an excellent novelist. Hmm. Compared to other cheap Science Fiction novelists maybe. Her work does compare favorably to similarly contructed-to-make-a-point but otherwise impractical universes like, say, Lucifer's Hammer by Niven and Pournelle or maybe the Gor series (where uncompromising women also get to enjoy sex without stooping to saying yes.) But otherwise no, she’s not an excellent novelist. Even sticking to the sci-fi genre Norman Spinrad’s novel The Iron Dream makes the same points much more effectively.

Dr. Fager writes:

I read Atlas Shrugged about 45 yrs. ago. My recollection is that as "literature", whatever the hell that is, it's awful.

But, younger people must understand that the book came out when the liberal wave was still in ascendancy. She had the liberals pegged and was downright prescient as to where liberalism was headed. There's a character in the book (I believe his name was Wesley Mouch) who is Bill Clinton to a T.

She was, and is, vilified by liberals because she said the emperor had no clothes long before most people realized it (some still don't).

Robert Schwartz writes:

"Ayn Rand . . . is one of the greatest of the Russian philosophical novelists, in the tradition of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky."

Brian. No. I read Rands novels many years ago when I was much younger. I have read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, also.

I enjoyed Rand when I was a teenager, but she just wasn't that good. I wander the battlefield of Austerlitz with Pierre Beuzhov still. And Ivan and Alyosha Karamozovs' struggle with good and evil haunts me continually.

Indeed I cannot understand why anybody would bother with Nietzsche when Dostoyevsky went over the same issues with so much more clarity, humanity and sanity.

Once I went to college and read Locke, Berkley, Hume and Mill, I understood far more clearly the issues Rand discussed and what the nature and limits of liberalism are. As for her use of the name of Aristotle, I assume she did it because few people in the United States could call her on it.

I will end by saying that Rand did do some good, she carried the torch for liberalism in a very dark time when very few would do it. But immortal literature? No.

Randy writes:

Interesting. From reading the letters above it seems clear that one's liking or not liking Ayn Rand depends on whether or not one has actually read her books. Interesting also, that those who have not read her feel compelled to comment. That's power.

Andrew M writes:

Bryan is quite correct that the writings of the great dead philosophers contain plenty of bad arguments. But, unfortunately, Rand was a spectacularly incompetent philosopher who would have been eaten alive in any graduate seminar at a top 20 philosophy department today. (Bruce Goldberg illustrated my claim very effectively many years ago in the long-defunct New Individualist Review.) And I say all this as an enthusiastic supporter of many of Rand's conclusions. Sorry to be a party-pooper!

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top