Arnold Kling  

Ayn Rand's Niche

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Michael Huemer writes,

What accounts for the continuing and increasing interest in the work of Ayn Rand? Clearly, the attraction of her ideas has much to do with it. This is true despite the fact that most people, even in America, are probably hostile to most of her philosophy. In a capitalist society, one need not please a majority in order to be successful; one need only find a market niche.

He goes on to say that novels are more popular that philosophical tracts. Note: see also Bryan's comments on Huemer's essay.

Here are my thoughts on Rand's niche:

1. In terms of the psychological factor known as Agreeableness, I speculate that people who tend to lean libertarian tend to be low relative to the average person. We place relatively low value on going along to get along.

2. Those of us who are low on Agreeableness really resent situations in which Agreeableness confers high status. When we think that guys are winning approval, status, and girls by expressing nice-sounding political opinions, we get ticked off.

3. Rand makes a virtue out of being low on Agreeableness. This is almost unique in literature. Few other writers, if any, use their writing to express and advocate for low Agreeableness. Instead, most writers either are dispassionate or are strongly Agreeable. When people who are low on Agreeableness encounter Rand, they feel that they have found a rare soulmate.

4. In my own life, I have had to work very hard to overcome my low Agreeableness. I can think of many situations in which I failed to do so, at some cost to my position on the career ladder. To this day, people with very high status trigger my disagreeableness in ways that I cannot really control (see my posts on Jonathan Gruber).

5. I encountered Rand's work relatively late in life. My reactions were mixed.

6. One could argue that my own writing is aimed at the same niche. Perhaps it is all an elaborate justification for low agreeableness.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (10 to date)
sean writes:

really interesting point.

Adam writes:

I'm not so high on your explanation, Arnold. Agreeableness? Really? That's all there is?

I just like liberty. Always have, always will. I also like logic and rationality, but also a degree of humility. Your blog almost always gets high marks in the latter attributes. Hence, I like your blog.

I'm less inclined to 'like' Ayn Rand. She certainly loved liberty, logic, and rationality, but there was no room for humility in her philosophy. The lack of humility, of failure to admit the possibility of error, made her philosophy inhuman when rigorously applied. Since she did indeed try to live her life rigorously, her philosophy eventually destroyed everything around her. She became a tyrant rather than a liberator. Only Rothbard seemed to understand the tyranny within her philosophy.

Though I find the late-in-life Rand unlikable, I find her insights on the foundations of liberty outstanding. Her essay on "The Objectivist Ethics" is a masterpiece. Though it fails to establish an objective metaphysics, it provides a powerful argument for liberty. At the core, what the distinguishing feature of humans is rational think--reasoning between means and ends. Hence, to think is to act and realize the fruits of our actions. If our fruits are stolen and our moral actions outlawed, we cease to be human.

Read the essay. It's much better than I might write.

Loof writes:

Loof’s agreeableness also sees people with libertarian leanings tend to be low relative to the average person—and perhaps getting high relative to the elitist personality. Libertarians do appear to place low value on going along to get along with average people, when placing high value on going along to get along with elitism. L call it the libertarian niche.

By the way, those who consciously think with a superiority complex have unconscious feelings of inferiority, according to Individual psychology.

Stan writes:

"Perhaps it is all an elaborate justification for low agreeableness."
Heh. Reminds me of why I can't figure out why I desire to rebel against virtually everything.

Faze writes:

This libertarian has no problem being agreeable, since being agreeable helps me to achieve my goals, the most important of which is making money. If I were always frank and generous in offering my views on the social, political and economic issues of the day, my life would turn into one long argument, ending in social ostracism, and empty bank accounts. What would be the point of that? You clearly enjoy contention, and value the excitement and the peculiar psychological rewards you get from a good dust-up, to the benefits of being agreeable and getting along with people. Many people who choose to be disagreeable hope that others will see them as victims of the idiocracy undergoing martyrdom for their principles. But the truth is, you guys simply like to fight, and sometimes you prefer the satisfactions of an argument to the satisfaction of having money. This libertarian prefers the money; or, at least, will wait till he has accumulated enough money to give him a comfortable vantage from which to undertake the pastime of grumbling.

Joshua Herring writes:

This post makes some excellent points. I think you're right on about at least part of what explains Rand's enduring appeal.

Let's give credit where it's due, though - if Rand's writing is, to some degree, "an elaborate justification for low agreeableness," as you imply, she's at least careful to warn her readers of the costs. None of her characters are immediately successful, and they all pay a pretty heavy material price for sticking to their guns. The warnings are there, even if a lot of her readers choose to ignore them.

twv writes:

It's worth remembering that H.L. Mencken was also low on agreeableness, at least in his essays. But he made no attempt to ground this attitude in a metaphysics, which makes his writing a tad easier to take than Rand's.

Rand struck a pose: Egoist. But she did a very bad job defining egoism and altruism (she defined these two opposites by differing criteria!), and slipped into a sort of low-brow egoism as a result of her failed philosophical stance.

But neither her stance nor her explicit reasoning tells the whole story, or even the biggest part. Most readers take from her writings the commonsense view that it's OK to be self-directed, self-assertive, self-what-have-you. Since many of the brightest people around take silly, over-the-top religious and political altruism at face value, this was a help.

So, a watered-down Rand is what most readers probably take away from her writings. That's good, for Rand Straight is a bad philosopher and a rather nasty individual.

One of the great things about the libertarian movement today is that there is such a plurality of writers whose noses are not constantly out of joint. Rand now serves as a lump to leaven the bread, not the whole meal.

James writes:

I think an enduring part of her appeal is that she serves to make successful people feel less guilty about the plight of the poor.

mulp writes:

Rand is attractive because she promises the free lunch of all the benefits of government without having to pay for government.

I'm not sure what "Agreeableness" is, but I think it might relate to Rand in the sense that Rand fans are low on agreeing to have others use their property and low on agreeing to pay for the use of the property of others.

Rand was like that, saying that pollution isn't a problem because any harm one person does to another needs to be paid for, but then arguing that when it comes to pollution, it is mandatory for industry, and the survival of lower lifeforms must not require the sacrifice of mankind, so that means industry must be allowed to pollute and only lower lifeforms will suffer. One concludes that any individuals who suffer, suffer out of necessity, but that is ok because they are a lower lifeform - they aren't industrialists.

Rimfax writes:

For what it's worth, my take on Rand's appeal: Who is Hank Reardon?

My guess/projection is that others similarly find bits of Atlas or Fountainhead that resonate profoundly with them and the rest is cruft.

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