David R. Henderson  

Inspiration from Ayn Rand

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Signaling and Jury Duty... Rejoinder on Hayek...

Some of the commenters on my post on Ayn Rand didn't like the fact that the book I discussed revealed some of the pretty-negative parts of Ayn Rand's character. One commenter, Brianna, wrote:

What matters in the end are her books and her philosophy.

I think lots of things matter. For me, the reason Anne Heller's book matters is three-fold:
(1) It explains a lot of things that are otherwise a mystery, like some of Ayn Rand's intense denunciations of people who disagreed with her.
(2) As I said in the above post, and which no one commented on, it illustrates the importance of being willing to admit mistakes, and
(3) As I mentioned in the post, it shows the bigger world Rand acted in and how seriously she was taken.

Putting all that together, imagine someone with Ayn Rand's intellect and clarity who had Milton Friedman's spiritual generosity and warmth. Both were awesome people. The combination would have been incredible. I admit that it might also have been impossible. The drugs Ayn Rand took helped her with her clarity but also, probably, contributed to her nastiness. Still the combination is worth contemplating because she could have traded off differently.

Nevertheless, like some of the commenters, I too took huge inspiration from Ayn Rand. I think it's a fairly safe statement that I did three major things in my life I would not have done had I not read The Fountainhead:
(1) Become a libertarian.
(2) Become an economist.
(3) Immigrated to the United States.

Indeed, Barbara Branden, in her book, The Passion of Ayn Rand, quoted from an unpublished obituary of Rand that I had sent to Barbara. Here's the quote:

Ayn Rand got me thinking about what kind of political system is proper for an autonomous human being to live in, and my thinking about that led me to become an economist. She helped me, perhaps more than anyone else, to live my life.

So here are two of my favorite inspirational sections from The Fountainhead that really have helped me life my life. Every so often I go back to them.

The scene where the Dean kicks Howard Roark out of architecture school.

"Do you mean to tell me that you're thinking seriously of building that way, when and if you are an architect?"
"Yes."
"My dear fellow, who will let you?"
"That's not the point. The point is, who will stop me?"

The scene where Dominique visits Roark in an Ohio city after he has left New York, where he has built skyscrapers and is now building a 5-story department store. Incidentally, I quoted this in a graduation speech I gave in 1981 at the high school from which I had graduated in 1967:

"Roark, its the quarry again."
He smiled. "If you wish. Only it isn't."
"After the Enright House? After the Cord Building?"
"I don't think of it that way."
"How do you think of it?"
"I love doing it. Every building is like a person. Single and unrepeatable."
He was looking across the street. He had not changed. There was the old sense of lightness in him, of ease in motion, in action, in thought. She said, her sentence without beginning or end:
". . . doing five-story buildings for the rest of your life . . ."
"If necessary. But I don't think it will be like that."
"What are you waiting for?"
"I'm not waiting."

Finally, I think it was Steve Cox who wrote somewhere that one of the under-appreciated parts of Rand's work is her sharp sense of humor. Here's one of my favorite humorous passages. It's her description of the architecture school from which Roark was expelled:

It looked like a medieval fortress, with a Gothic cathedral grafted to its belly. The fortress was eminently suited to its purpose, with stout, brick walls, a few slits wide enough for sentries, ramparts behind which defending archers could hide, and corner turrets from which boiling oil could be poured upon the attacker--should such an emergency arise in an institute of learning.

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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Stewart Gruffub writes:

"imagine someone with Ayn Rand's intellect and clarity who had Milton Friedman's spiritual generosity and warmth"

You mean a Milton Friedman with less intellectual brilliance?

Troy Camplin writes:

Here's my list of what happened to me because of Ayn Rand:

1) I became a libertarian
2) I became a fiction writer
3) I became interested in economics
4) I read NIetzsche

The last two contributed to my becoming a systems philosopher, which led to my being involved with the Fund for the Study of Spontaneous Order (along these lines, the first one helped there as well).

Had it not been for Ayn Rand, I would have finished my M.S. in biology and probably gone on to a Ph.D. in molecular biology. And I would probably be employed.

But I would not be the person I am, I would not have become as happy as I have become, and I would have never ended up in Dallas, TX, where I got my Ph.D. in the humanities, met my wife, and had my children.

Of course, it's not all Ayn Rand's fault. Some of the blame can be laid on Ronald Nash, whose philosophy class got me interested in free market economics, which got me reading everything with the word "capitalism," which included "Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal," and thus to her literary works.

Never know what those required classes will do.

Steve writes:

David,

Where did you immigrate from?

David R. Henderson writes:

Steve,
Canada.

Koromo writes:

Ayn was not smarter than Milton. MF is one of the smartest economists ever, if not the smartest.

Douglass Holmes writes:

If I had to choose between emulating Milton Friedman or emulating Ayn Rand, I would choose Milton Friedman. If I had the choice of an hour with Milton Friedman or an hour with Ayn Rand, I would choose Milton Friedman. If I had to choose between spneding an hour with one of Milton Friedman's children, or one of Ayn Rand's disciples, I would choose one of Milton Friedman's children.

If I had to choose between reading Ayn Rand's longest book or Milton Friedman's longest book, then Ayn Rand would win. For some reason, I like fiction.

John Donohue writes:

What does this mean?:
"(2) ... it illustrates the importance of being willing to admit mistakes,..."

Did you find an error in Miss Rand's philosophy and she agreed and then just stonewalled it? If so, can you point us to the error?


After wishing Rand had Milton Freidman's personality, you say "..she could have traded off differently."
Sorry, Miss Rand declines. Her sales are enormous forever. Her ideas electrify generation after generation of youth, some of whom hold onto their fire under the pressure from those that betrayed their souls and are now older collectivists insisting they conform.

What matters in the end are her books and her philosophy.

SydB writes:

I still don't understand the interest in Ayn Rand's novels. I've studied a lot of libertarianism and Ayn Rand's ideas, but the fiction books really are--to me--tawdry soap operas that dress up her ideas. I could barely finish Fountainhead the writing is so bad. I'm not sure when she started on amphetamines, but her writing has the feel of someone who's taking too many amphetamines.

As far as her philosophy, there are some interesting ideas, many of the borrowed from others such as Nietzsche (Rand herself said Nietzsche had gotten to HER ideas first). But her confusions about "ought" from "is" shows her limits as a philosopher. Her thinking is flawed in many ways.

On a different note: Doesn't anyone find it ironic that Caplan derides Hayek for five blog posts yet revels in Rand's "philosophy standing on foot." Isn't this a double standard?

David writes:

I haven't read the Heller book but I recently finished the Jennifer Burns book (Goddess of the Market) and enjoyed it very much. More of an intellectual biography, although with enough personal detail to provide a reasonable context for her ideas and time.

Brianna writes:

I do not think that Rand made any mistakes in her fundamental ideas. On the contrary, I think that if our country manages to turn itself around and get back on its feet, it will primarily be because of Rand's ideas and the acceptance by the population of those ideas. She's a prominent personage at tea parties, her books are selling at tremendous rates right now, and the ARI is currently experiencing a large jump in prestige and attention. If this is true, if the country finally manages to accept the ideas it was implicitly founded on and turn around as a result, it could quite possibly make Rand one of the most important people who ever lived.

But from what I've gathered of the biographies (I haven't read them, and won't offer serious commentary and critique unless I do, but from what I've gathered of them) Rand was not a perfect person. Quite simply, nobody is. And I'm willing to bet that she felt she had to be, not just because of internal pressure from her own ideas but also external pressure from a world which was basically just waiting for her to screw up somehow so they could jump on her and say, "Hah, told you all this crazy stuff doesn't work after all!" Perfection is an ideal to strive for, but humans aren't perfect and never will be. This makes it very important for a) humans to be honest about how and when they screw up and b) be willing to get back up, fix the errors and try again. In Rand, this process may well have been short-circuited, which is not a helpful trait in a human being.

I also think there's some confusion out there about Rand's personal life and morality as opposed to conventional morality. Rand never said that extramarital affairs were wrong per se, nor did she ever claim that taking drugs was unequivocally wrong or should be legislated against. But just because she didn't break her personal code doesn't mean that she wasn't breaking a lot of other peoples' personal codes in very strong and offensive ways, and the mere fact that she wasn't a hypocrite herself wouldn't stop people from condemning her actions.

Finally, about the amphetamines, here's some food for thought. Prominent mathematician Paul Erdos took amphetamines for years. He was once challenged to a bet that he couldn't stop taking them for a month, and won, but said that mathematics had lost a month of good work in the process. Nobody has ever excoriated him for that, so I don't really see why they should bother to excoriate Rand for essentially doing the same thing that Erdos was.

SydB writes:

"I don't really see why they should bother to excoriate Rand for essentially doing the same thing that Erdos was."

Actually there is a big difference. Erdos instigate a culture of criticism and critique about himself. That's what science is all about, as well as mathematics. It's what true liberal thinking is about: creating a culture of criticism.

Rand, on the other hand, created a culture of cult around herself. A culture of "shut up, I'm right" and "if you don't understand me you are an ignorant idiot."

It's like night and day. People need to understand this. And, to be honest, her ideas are fundamentally flawed. You can't derive "ought" from "is." Certainly in the piddling way she attempted. And her ignoring of altruism versus her obsession with egoism--let alone her egotism--was anti-scientific and evolutionarily unsound.

SydB writes:

One other note and then I'll shut up: Every dollar Erdos ever earned he donated to scholarships and similar causes around the world. Rand, on the other hand, donated her money to--what else-further aggrandizement of herself. Typical.

SydB writes:

One more note to my note then I'll really shut up. Having studied Rand and her thinking, I will admit that she gets more grief and invective than she deserves. Many thinkers were jerks and had personality flaws, yet they are rarely used as arguments against them.

But I think the reaction against Rand is based upon the glassy-eyed devotion of her followers. Rand is to libertarians what scientology is to the acting community--a sort of self-help motivational speaker. It is in fact ironic that her lover went on to found the self-help movement in the US. Because much of what Rand did with her life and writings was self-help for nerds.

Troy Camplin writes:

One of the biggest mistakes in philosophy is the idea that it is a fallacy to try to derive "ought" from "is." That separation has caused more philosophical, moral, and political trouble than any single idea. If "ought" does not map onto "is," we get the Holocaust, the USSR and COmmunist China and their experiments, etc. In fact, the more we learn about what really "is," the more we learn what we "ought" to do.

Along these lines, I recommend Marc Hauser's "Moral Minds" and Frans de Waal's "Good Natured." And much of what is going on in evolutionary psychology.

SydB writes:

Troy: I'm not sure if it's a biggest mistake, but a common mistake people make is calling something "the biggest mistake." It's a rhetorical ploy.

Evolutionary psychology does not describe ought. It is a naturalistic fallacy, which in a sense, is a another way to describe the "is" "ought" problem. Evolutionary psychology describes "is." I've read both those books.

Dialectic spiritualists and materialists were certain that they had derived "ought" from "is." A sound argument can be made that "ought" from "is" results in the horrors you describe.

In summary, you've not made an argument.

Brianna writes:

Well, what matters in the end ARE her books and her philosophy. I wasn't angry, I was just stating a fact. Her history certainly DOES reveal her to be less than perfect; I admit that freely and it makes me sad, not angry. But I don't think it is what should be used to make the final call at the end of the day, any more that Paul Erdos should have ultimately been judged by the fact that he took amphetamines or Galileo should have ultimately been judged by his tendency to tick off a lot of his colleagues.

John Donohue writes:

Oh the list could go on. Try looking into the quirks and foibles of Newton or Mozart for instance. But who cares? The power of the philosophy and inspiration of the fiction is what counts. Nobody cares about the vastly over-hyped events of a few years in the last century except those with an agenda. Ayn Rand's life work is permanent.

Rand did not "solve" the is/ought illusion. She showed it to be a non-starter for Aristotelians, along with the analytic-synthetic dichotomy, necessary/contingent confusion, etc. Those thorns are to be worn by those making footnotes to Plato.

Troy Camplin I have not read those two books. If you have read Rand, especially "The Virtue of Selfishness," can you say if they concur with the philosophical foundation of Rand, namely that morality (ought) is driven by reality (is) in that a human needs judgments (oughts) a million times a day to preserve his life and further it on the earth?

SydB your "donation" gambit is An Appeal To Altruism. That is a fatal error. You make a fatuous claim (after you slammed another poster for similar) with the phrase "every dollar", a rhetorical piece of gunk. In the same sentence you totalize Rand's promotion of her work and/or retention of her money. If you knew your philosophy could save the world would you use the revenue at your disposal to promote it? It would immoral to give it away.

You also throw the "bad literature" card, the amphetamines card and the Nietzsche card along with the is/ought card. These are just boringly repeated "rand zappers" accumulated like scraps of paper blown by the wind over the last 65 years of tremendous Interest In Ayn Rand's Novels. Oh wait, I forgot, you don't Understand The Interest In Ayn Rand's Novels. Case closed.

Brianna, I think one should be glad that Rand's antagonists harp on the supposed "imperfections" and cranky behaviors et al. They amount to a massive case of psychologizing, a useless tactic in refuting an idea. If 'that's all they got' they are pathetic. The more decades and centuries that pass, the less large the gossip will seem and the more huge will be Objectivism itself.

Diana Hsieh writes:

For anyone interested in Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged," I wanted to mention that I'm recording a series of podcasts on the book. I'm following the scheduled used by a local reading group, so I've recently posted number 7 of 20. They're all here:

http://www.exploreaynrand.com/1957/

My full set of podcasts can be found here: http://www.dianahsieh.com/cast/

Diana Hsieh
Ph.D, Philosophy, CU Boulder

Norris Hall writes:

I'm amazed that anyone is still quoting the now discredited Ayn Rand who believed that free markets operate best by eliminating regulation

Alan Greenspan followed her flawed philosophy until the economic meltdown in 2008...at which point he broke down and admitted to Congress that "Flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak."

In the early 1950s, Greenspan began an association with Ayn Rand that would last until her death in 1982. He wrote for Rand’s newsletters and authored several essays in her book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Rand stood beside him at his 1974 swearing-in as Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.

Unfortunately Ayn Rand's philosophy, like ponzi schemes, seem to work well for a time...then all of a sudden lead to disaster as it did 10 years ago when Long-Term Capital Management, which relied on mathematical models to govern a tangled web of unregulated derivatives trades, collapsed.
The New York Fed engineered a bailout, supported by 14 private banks who invested $3.6 billion.

Fortunately disaster was avoided back then when several banks got together and bailed out the fund to the tune of a few billion dollars.

Compared to the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars that have gone to bail out failing banks during this crisis...the call for more regulation back then should have been heeded.

Even now, after the financial debacle that brought banks to their knees and required taxpayer bailouts to keep them afloat, the banking lobby is still pushing back against regulation.

LIke an alcoholic promising to be given another chance to reform , the bankers still believe that they can regulate themselves and be trusted once again to do the right thing

Ayn Rand....No!!!!!!

[Portions of the above comment quote verbatim from other sources without offering citation, such as Wikipedia's article on Alan Greenspan. The comment has also been edited for inappropriate language. Norris, you've been warned before for republishing material that already appears online, without citing it or giving any references. Plagiarism and crude language are not acceptable on EconLog. If you want your comment privileges restored, please email the webmaster@econlib.org --Econlib Ed.]

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