Bryan Caplan  

When Ayn Rand Villains Ruled the Earth

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A leading criticism of Ayn Rand's novels is that her villains are unbelievable. No one runs around proclaiming their devotion to the opposite of what John Galt believes.

People who say this should read more about the '30's and '40's. In those days, hard as it is to believe, Ayn Rand villains not only had the public's ear; they ran governments. Here's a nice example I just ran across from The Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact by Boris Slavinsky:

[Japanese Foreign Minister] Matsuoko said that he had spoken to Molotov for about 30 minutes and with Stalin for about an hour. He had explained to Stalin that morally the Japanese were Communists. The idea had been handed down from fathers to sons from time immemorial. But at the same time he stated that he did not believe in political and economic Communism.

To explain what he meant by 'moral Communism' Matsuoko cited his own family, but said the Japanese concept of moral Communism had been overwhelmed by liberalism, individualism and egoism from the West. However, there was still a minority of people in Japan strong enough to fight successfully to restore the old Japanese credo... Basically it was the Anglo-Saxons who were responsible for penetration by the above-mentioned Western ideology. To restore the old, traditional Japanese ideal, Japan would therefore have to fight the Anglo-Saxons. In China, too, she was fighting not against the Chinese, but against Great Britain in China and capitalism in China.


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
liberty writes:

You hardly need to go back that far to find quotes supporting the anti-Galt philosophy. It is only in America that there has ever been a pretense of individuality as a moral ideal, other countries have only respected subsets of individuality such as the individual right to life, democratic representation and generally "freedom" (which of course the Bolsheviks were in favor of too, not recognizing that removing right to property would hinder these freedoms).

It is widespread in media and politics to trumpet socialist ideals at least as often as individualistic ones, though they are kept in check by American tradition. The rhetoric and discussion of morality in Europe is still often about supporting the common good and least advantaged and not about true individual rights, though since the fall of communism is has improved.

eric writes:

Most liberals can't stand Rand's morality tales as they clearly see their betters being caricatured. But I'm a lot more tolerant of Rand because if you consider what Rand actually witnessed in Russia, and probably what she heard about the actual terror that was going on in the 30's when everyone was talking about the superiority of the Soviet system versus the failure of the West during the Great Depression, she really knew first hand who the good guys were.

She knew that the Western-style democratic capitalism was clearly more productive, more moral, more free, than socialism, but couldn't prove it! People said it was she who was the lying ideologue. That must have been very frustrating, and I think contributed to her heavy-handed caricatures.

Jadagul writes:

When I first read Atlas Shrugged I thought the villains were totally absurd caricatures. About six months later, while reading Hazlitt's The Failure of the "New Economics" I ran across this quote from Keynes:

Thus we might aim in practice...at a scheme of direct taxation which allows the intelligence and determination and executive still of the financier, the entreprenuer et hoc genus omne (who are certainly so fond of their craft that their labor could be obtained much cheaper than at present), to be harnessed to the service of the community on reasonable terms of reward.

Struck me as something directly out of a Rand novel: "You men of genius will keep on creating even if we don't reward you for it; you can't help it; so why should we compensate you?" I had a lot more sympathy for her after that. I still think she screwed a bunch of things up, but she also had a lot of good points, and I can definitely see what she was fighting against.

th writes:

> No one runs around proclaiming their devotion to the opposite of what John Galt believes.

I felt the same about the architecture critics in The Fountainhead. No one could actually believe that all new architecture would ever be invented – that all new art is just a copy of something older. Then I found this quote at the Museum of Architecture in Frankfurt:

There will be no new style in art, nor will there ever be; it must arise from the old one; it cannot be invented.
--Peter Behrens, 1900

I also recently read a New York Times editorial from the 1920’s complaining that skyscrapers were ostentatious symbols of individualism. Unbelievable.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Jadagul,

There is rather a big difference between putting a tax on capital incomes that reduces them somewhat and "not compensating" capitalists at all. Keynes did not advocate the latter.

In any case, comparing him to Hitler or Stalin is simply silly.

Eric H writes:

You don't have to run that far afield. You only have to look at Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy , Part II, Chapter XII, Section I, "The Obsolescence of the Entrepreneurial Function". Apparently, there were no new ideas to champion. Yeah, in 1942. One suspects that Craig McCaw, Ted Turner, and Bill Gates might have a different opinion.

Joel Levine writes:

Contrary to what may be inferred from the comment, although Ayn Rand's villains may have shared a basic belief in "man as means", they were not unidimensional. One could even make a case that until Dagny Taggert or Hank Rearden came over to Galt's side they were villainous, since it was their work that enabled the Jim Taggerts and Mr. Thompsons of the world.

There is no shortage of modern day counterparts to the Jim Taggerts and Mr. Thompsons. Turn on CSPAN. Anyone who believes that it is the legitimate role of government to take the wealth of those who have earned it and redistribute it to those who don't will do nicely. Only this past year one could witness in living color the heads of the major oil companies hauled before the Senate to explain why their companies should be entitled keep their profits rather than disgorge them to the government in the form of a windfall profits tax. What moral principle guides these politicians? It is the same principal guiding the automobile company executive whose company cannot compete who seeks a government bailout. In each instance whether it is the politician or the business man, the guiding principle is that each beleives that every man is a means to every other man instead of an end onto himself. If there is a core principle connected with Ayn Rand's villains, this is it. Unfortunately, at times it seems to be the norm instead of the exception.

liberty writes:

Well said Joel Levine!!

Jadagul writes:

Barkley Rossier: yeah, certainly not on the level of Hitler or Stalin, nor even evil (though misguided). The part that struck me when I read that was the "they can't help working to our benefit [very much a Randian idea], so we can compensate them far far less than the benefits they create and they'll keep on doing it." I'm not sure I can fully articulate why this strikes me as so off—I wish I could—but it does.

Bill Stepp writes:

Comment to Barkley Rosser:

Even if we allow that Keynes didn't argue for the "euthanasia of the rentier," what did he think of the 91% marginal rates during WW II?
(Not that many people actually paid them.)
Did he condemn them?

And as for comparing Keynes to Hitler or Stalin,
JMK wrote in the forward to the German edition
of The General Theory that his theory could best be tried in the sort of economy that the Nazis ran. James J. Martin wrote about it in his book The Saga of Hog Island and Other Essays in Inconvenient History.
So I don't think it's completely out of bounds to compare Keyenes with Hitler and Stalin.
They all leaned toward socialism or facism.

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