Bryan Caplan

Happy 101st Birthday, Ayn Rand

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Would Ayn Rand be proud of how I turned out? Probably not, but I love her just the same. Here's why, and here are details on her contributions to literature, philosophy, and social science. If that doesn't satisfy your Rand hunger, check out my forthcoming chapter, "Ayn Rand and Public Choice: The Obvious Parallels," in Ed Younkins' Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literary Companion.


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TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/449
The author at The Club for Growth Blog in a related article titled Ayn Rand writes:
    It’s Ayn Rand’s 101st birthday today. Bryan Caplan offers his thanks for the influence she had on him.... [Tracked on February 2, 2006 3:55 PM]
COMMENTS (14 to date)
Scott Scheule writes:

In last year's post, you asked why Rand gets such hostility.

I won't speak for others, and I won't defend the opinion here, but nevertheless, I think she's a subpar writer. Her characters are wooden. The obviousness of her underlying position is glaring, and embarassingly so: often she comes perilously close to simply stating "this character represents a moocher."

Nonetheless, like Bryan, Ayn had a huge influence on me and I am grateful for that.

liberty writes:

I agree. I think her characters are pretty wooden, many of them, and none are engaging to me. I also find her writing dry and somewhat embarrassing as well, in the writing style. But that is just me and I do not pretend to have the background in Hugo, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to say whether they can truly be situated among them. Styles of that time were possibly less subtle than most today, especially the Russian tradition and Hugo.

However, that all said, I think her writing is powerful in its scope of philosophy and the ability of the story, the plot and the progression to tackle very large issues and remain relatively realistic - while writing the story of a slow revolution in society, for example. And though the dialog was often, in my mind, unrealistic and cardboard, it could also be powerful as philosophic dialog, and it worked. The speeches in context worked very well and were moving.

I recently saw the Fountainhead, the film:
http://imdb.com/title/tt0041386/

It actually made her dialog work a lot better - times were different then, the film was very like other films of its time in terms of dialog and characters. The only slightly embarassing thing was whether others watching actually cared about the plot, in a sense. I might have switched it off if I didn't already think highly of Rand.

But Atlas is a monumental book and it certainly changed my thinking quite a bit (though to be honest it only took about 50 pages, the rest was just repetition so you don't forget, it seemed like)

T.R. Elliott writes:

I found Fountainhead difficult to finish though I did because others raved so much about it. As described above, her characterization is very poor. As well as just about everything else.

Atlas Shrugged I've not read, though suppose I should (it's on the shelf waiting). But I've gather its about a bunch of superior people who pout and go on strike. Oh, you poor superior people. We feel so sorry for you.

I think it fitting that Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard are at the top of polls for favorite fiction and non-fiction books. Both are more cults than people to be taken seriously. I think the market is speaking very clearly to us in rating them both at the top. If you look at her life, and the events surrouning her both while she was alive and afterwards, the parallels with Hubbard are in fact quite amazing.

I imagine that Ayn Rand's fiction is a lot like Tom Robbins. When I mean is the following: I read a review of his most recent book, and the reviewer said that fans of Tom Robbins tended to start reading him when they were in college smoking pot. I tried to read Robbins once, but found it nonsense. It was a recommended by someone who started reading him when he was in college smoking pot.

I think the attraction to Rand develops in a similar fashion but the characteristics are unknown. I'm not sure what they might be. Usually geeky guys who don't get out enough. If the attraction develops early, it's like smoking cigarettes at a young age: you're much more seriously hooked for life.

I find it difficult to believe that someone could read broadly in fiction or non-fiction and then, coming across Ayn Rand, find her that appealing.

A hack screenwriter turned second rate novelist turned cult figure if you ask me.

liberty writes:

>Atlas Shrugged I've not read, though suppose I should (it's on the shelf waiting). But I've gather its about a bunch of superior people who pout and go on strike. Oh, you poor superior people. We feel so sorry for you.

No. Its about economics and philosophy of private property and incentives, if you ask me. I did not care as much for the strike as many people seem to. For me the main point was that politicians try to regulate business, supposedly for the good of all, and regular folk get the idea that they are entitled to certain things; but the people who actually do the work, take the risks and build the business that creates all of the things that they take for granted are ignored. If society keeps moving in this direction, ignoring, or worse hating, the productive and feeling entitled, then the world cannot continue to be productive. If you take away all the surplus of production, leaving each person with the same benefit regardless of how hard he works, he'll stop working hard. If you call a businessperson evil for making profit, who will be left to produce your high living standards that you have grown accustomed to?

That, to me, is the point of the book. Though many people learn of it in college, I do not think it is anything like "On the Road" or Tom Robbins or some such pot smoking fad; it is something that usually changes people's thinking for life.

(did you even read the econ paper? http://www.gmu.edu/departments/economics/bcaplan/rand.doc )

Uriah Heep writes:

I find it interesting that someone mentioned L. Ron Hubbard in an above comment. I made the same correlation in a past post when Bryan was on one of his Rand campaigns.

Bryan says, "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." --Thats got Hubbard written all over it.

Hubbard too raised many "self-validating axioms" in Dianetics and like Rand created a comfy living out of writing bad fiction with common sense philosphy like "A is A."

I made it through "Atlas Shrugged" kicking and screaming. As I've said before, Rand took her do-it-yourself metaphysics too far by not hiring an editor to chop her novels down by about 500 pages.

Dewey Munson writes:

".....If you call a businessperson evil for making profit, who will be left to produce......"

Probably one of his employees from whom all profit flow - - - to others.

liberty writes:

>Probably one of his employees from whom all profit flow - - - to others.

Isn't that a quote from Marx?

The mistake you are making is you assme that you can kill all the capitalists and be left with a fully productive workforce. Not that business owners themselves are a special breed, necessarily, but whomever is going to take their place requires the same incentives, at the very least. But if you call them evil and remove all profit incentive (though regulations, taxation, stigma, etc) then there will be nobody left willing to take all the risks, do all the hard work to build the business etc.

Profit isn't just luck and it doesn't go to those born rich. Its a motivator that gets regular people to work very hard and take big risks with their ideas. You take it away and you got nothing but a bunch of people willing to work as little as possible and grumpy about it.

econ_in_AK writes:

FWIW, I'm kind of surprised to see this much dissent over Rand's work on an economics blog. Liberty summed up her points pretty well I think. Bryan and Arnold moan about similar things on a daily basis, government creating market inefficiencies or removing/altering incentives. Everyone seems to be in accord about those issues, so why the change in tone when Rand's name is associated with similar ideals?

I liked Atlas much better than Fountainhead, and didn't think Dagny or Rearden where all that wooden. Think also about Wesley Mouch, the economic dictator. He actually does care deeply about the people of the economy and tries to solve the country's problems. It's just that he has no idea what drives an economy, which is, entrepreneurship responding to the possiblity for profit.

Tom Whiston writes:

atlas is about private property rights and the importance of capitalism like liberty said, but I thought Atlas Shrugged was a great example of how special interest groups opperate in a mixed economy and i thought Ayn did a good job building her characters' personalities.

T.R. Elliott writes:

Well, I'll have to read Atlas Shrugged. All of the issues brought up about inventives, special interests, etc etc are great. And it could be that the characters in Atlas are better. But I still think followers of Rand are cult like in their mentality. They think that because someone does not buy into her ideas 100% they just don't get it. "Hah, you must not understand economics" they will argue.

Like I've said in previous posts. The world is not black or white. The ideologues, in my opinion, think it is for two reasons: (1) they really don't think so, but are so busy trying to press the ball down the field towards their goals, knowing they will never realize it completely, that they see the world in black and white terms to further their goals--to the detriment of truth or (2) their eyes are glazed over and they really are zealots.

It's funny. Even quantum theory and general relativity are interpretations of underlying processes. I take a process perspective when considering the nature of the world, and quantum theory, for example, overlays on the underlying processes of the world nicely.

Ayn Rand and Libertarian, and even the efficiency of free markets, are much further from reality than quantum theory. Yet you wouldn't know it from the zealots who worship at the temple of Ayn (borrowing that overused cliche from Caplan's "worshiping at the temple of democracy" from his book).

liberty writes:

>Ayn Rand and Libertarian, and even the efficiency of free markets, are much further from reality than quantum theory. Yet you wouldn't know it from the zealots who worship at the temple of Ayn

I agree that people can her, like people take Marx or the bible at the word, as infallible, etc and that this is never good. No idol worship or strict literalism of a single source is ever good, in my opinion.

But, I do not think that the laws of economics as proven again and again daily and under every kind of circumstance (eg even under socialism the laws of supply and demand did not go away, nor incentives nor any other basic laws of economics), should be considered less real than physics or mathematics.

In fact I think it is far more dangerous to be wishy washy and consider them malleable (as Marx et al did) than to be voracious in support of them.

Truth, rational pursuit of good ends, in excess is good. False ideology based on false premises, even in smaller amounts can be very dangerous and bad.

A misunderstanding of economics - Marxian, for example, even if pursued in small steps, will ultimately lead to communism - because the misunderstanding (we are assuming that it is never overcome) will convince the people to keep taking more drastic steps, keep adding to socialism to fix the economic problems and poverty; while a right understanding of economics, whether drastic steps or incremental steps are taken will be good.

If we abolished all public welfare programs, including social security and medicaid and everything tomorrow, it would be okay. 60% less government, 60% less taxes, a booming economy. A drastic step but it would hurt few people and those who were hurt could turn to charity and there would be many Americans ready to help (and richer and more able to do so).

The American Revolution was drastic. But it was right ideology and it has turned out well. A small seed of misunderstanding of economics has fought against the American ideology and because of it we have grown a welfare state - but the drastic step of creating America on limited government was good. The less drastic making of Sweden was bad and only saved by some recent new ideology of capitalism.

I have a problem with people that equate any two "extremists" simply for believing strongly in their ideology. Strong belief in Rand and libertarianism is not is not equal in moral value to similar strength belief in Marxism.

John P. writes:

I read Rand for the first time last spring, specifically in response to Bryan's posts back then. I started with Fountainhead (hated it), then Atlas (loved it), and then Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (occasionally dull, frequently very insightful). After that workout, I'm inclined to think of Rand as what Richard Posner calls "a moral entrepreneur," i.e., someone who (regardless of philosophical vigor or lack thereof) makes a career out of pushing for a moral worldview at the extremes of what her time and society generally accept. (To Posner, "moral entrepreneur" is a neutral term; IIRC, he mentions both Hitler and MacKinnon as examples of moral entrepreneurs in his Problematics).

At any rate, although (as I said) I loved Atlas Shrugged, I wouldn't consider Rand a great novelist. Her biggest flaw IMO is that her ideas are not consistently presented in an artistically persuasive way. Some scenes in Atlas, for example, are unreal, clumsy, and simply incomprehensible until you read (somewhere else) what they're supposed to demonstrate (e.g., the John Galt torture scene). By contrast, Uncle Tom's Cabin was an equally popular, tendentious, and influential novel that works as a novel throughout.

John P. writes:

BTW, I am really excited to hear that Bryan and others have a new book on Atlas coming out. Can't wait to get my hands on it.

Michael Giesbrecht writes:

"The Obvious Parallels"... Heh. You're pretty clever Caplan. I think you can come up with your own book title. ;-)

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