Bryan Caplan  

Ayn Rand in the Happy Lab

Applying Hayek's "Local Knowle... Farewell, James Schneider...
Ayn Rand made many uncharitable claims about her philosophical opponents, but this passage from Galt's Speech in Atlas Shrugged takes the cake:
They do not want to own your fortune, they want you to lose it; they do not want to succeed, they want you to fail; they do not want to live, they want you to die; they desire nothing, they hate existence, and they keep running, each trying not to learn that the object of his hatred is himself.
I couldn't help but recall this passage while reading psychologist Sonya Lyubomirsky's new The Myths of Happiness.  Lyubomirsky ran an experiment where (a) participants were given a task, (b) a performance rating, and (c) their partner's performance rating.  The catch: The so-called "performance ratings" had nothing to do with performance.  They were randomly assigned to measure subjects' response to social comparison.  Lyubomirsky:
After they were finished, we created a small deception by leading each volunteer to believe that he or she had performed very poorly on this task (that is, that they received an average rating from judges of 2 out of 7), but also to believe that the second volunteer had performed even worse than they had (receiving a disappointing rating of only 1).  By contrast, a second group of volunteers were led to believe that they had performed extremely well (having obtained an average score of 6 out of 7), but that their peer had performed even better (receiving an outstanding score of 7)...
At first, the findings seem banal:
To analyze the data, I divided my participants into those who, before performing, reported being very happy and those who reported being relatively unhappy.  When I examined the "before" and "after" data of my very happy participants, I found that those who learned that they had performed very poorly reported feeling less positive, less confident, and more sad after the study was over.  Their reaction to ostensible failure was perfectly natural and not at all surprising.  By contrast, the very happy participants who learned that they had performed extremely well (a 6 out of 7) subsequently felt better on all dimensions, and, notably, learning that someone did even better did not dilute the pleasure of their ostensible success.
Then things turn Randian:
The results for my unhappiest participants, however, were dramatic.  Their reactions, it appears, were governed more by the reviews they had given their peers than by their own feedback.  Indeed, the study paints a stark and quite unpleasant portrait of an unhappy person.  My unhappiest volunteers reported feeling happier and more secure when they received a poor evaluation (but heard that their peer did even worse) than when they had received an excellent evaluation (but heard that their peer did even better).  It appears that unhappy individuals have bought into the sardonic maxim attributed to Gore Vidal: "For true happiness, it is not enough to be successful oneself... One's friends must fail."
Rand's positive theory of happiness is largely wrong, as she could have readily discovered by carefully attending to her own bitter experiences.  But lets look on Rand's bright side.  Outlandish though they seem, empirical psych supports some of her most Manichean accusations. 

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Tom West writes:

I suspect the arrow of causality is "enjoy other's failures"/"can't enjoy other's good fortune" -> unhappy life.

ChrisA writes:

I am sure that you mention this to draw parallels with the current debate on inequality. We have a lot of people complaining about their circumstances, not with regard to what position they were in say 10 or 20 years ago, but in comparison to others doing even better.

Leo writes:

You read Galt's speech in Atlas shrugged? You should skip over that bit it is long and boring and doesn't really add anything to the story.

Joe Teicher writes:

Could it be that the people who got a 2/7 felt better when they learned their partner got a 1/7 because they believed maybe they were being graded on a curve and had actually done well? Presumably there isn't an objective way to determine performance in the task. Given only your score and the score of one other person, what can you do to determine whether you did well or poorly other than compare them?

Burke Chester writes:

Ayn Rand (via Galt) wasn't writing this about all her "philosophical opponents," just the most depraved of them-many of whom have had an enormous influence on the history of mankind. Probably, her Exhibit "A" in this regard was Immanuel Kant.

Too many people make broad criticisms of Ayn Rand with little or no understanding of her ideas. And then there are those who almost instinctively identify with her philosophical opponents without fully grasping why.

Yancey Ward writes:

Envy and covetousness corrupts the soul. I can't really think of a single truly happy person I have ever known who didn't take delight in the success of others.

foobarista writes:

As for that whole envy thing, lots of commentators have pointed out that the "income inequality" scare is being driven by "New Class" academics, bureaucrats, and media types, typically "mere millionaires" (but living in super-expensive areas where a mere single-digit millionaire lives only marginally better than a middle-class life) who are annoyed by the billionaires in their midst who can actually afford to "live large" in Manhattan.

Megan McArdle once pointed out that top media types define "too rich" as anyone making more than a typical media power couple would make as a household.

James A. Donald writes:

Surely Rand's positive theory of happiness was proven right her own experiences. The problem was that she and her closest followers hypocritically failed to follow it.

ThomasH writes:

"Envy and covetousness corrupts the soul. I can't really think of a single truly happy person I have ever known who didn't take delight in the success of others."

I certainly see this in the attitudes of some of those who covet the SNAP benefits, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid of the unfortunate in order to use them to reduce taxes on higher income folks.

Of course there are principled reasons to favor policies that have the effect of transferring income from the bottom to the top just as there are principled reasons to favor policies that have the effect transfer income from the top to the bottom. It is a canard to assume that envy and covetousness is the only thing driving people's attitudes toward redistribution.

Yancey Ward writes:

Well done, Thomas- you not only to beat that strawman to death, you even managed to find completely novel definitions of envy and covetousness.

Burke Chester writes:

Taking Ayn Rand's view, Thomas, what "principled reasons" justify taking wealth by force from those who produce it and giving it to others who didn't? Why isn't that just armed robbery?

Because their income isn't "equal"?

Why should the income of those who produce little or nothing be equal to that of others who produce much more?

libertarian jerry writes:

Its always the same game with the collectivist Left. That is the zero sum game. The game works this way. Somewhere there is a money tree and the "rich" (successful) "steal" more then their "fair share" from this mysterious tree thus depriving everyone of their "fair share." And so therefore these "rich," in the name of "fairness" have to be forced to "give back to the community,"in the guise of taxes that which they have stolen. This is what the Left terms "economic democracy" and "social justice." Of course the ones that are collecting and redistributing this wealth are the leftist well paid bureaucrats and the ones receiving this wealth are the people who are too lazy or incompetent to get out of bed in the morning and go to work. Everyone skips over the part of the story where for generations the truly poor were taken care of by the churches,charity and small local governments. Ayn Rand was right in judging her collectivist opponents. In essence they were up to their red necks in covetousness,envy and hate towards the successful in our society.

Burke Chester writes:

The more important of Ayn Rand's ideas, Jerry, explain why leftists and others are so envious of successful people and why others have been largely impotent against them: the very bad philosophical ideas that underlie both collectivism and Christianity: altruism, selflessness, self-sacrifice, as well as even more fundamental philosophical beliefs.

But that's beyond the scope of this article. I recommend reading Ayn Rand's non-fiction works for this and visiting the web site of the Ayn Rand Institute.

libertarian jerry writes:

Well said Burke Chester. I've been an avid endorser of Ayn Rand's basic philosophy for over 50 years. Although I agree with the vast majority of what Rand says,I've come away with two basic lessons for the average reader of this blog. 1st, In her magnum opus novel,Atlas Shrugged,she laid out,with precision,what the future would hold for America and the world if the current,for her time,political and social philosophy of altruism were continued. With uncanny accuracy,almost 60 years after publishing her novel,the world that she laid out has come to fruition. Atlas Shrugged and George Orwell's 1984 were warnings. Both were written around the same time,both predicted with accuracy today's modern times. 2nd, What Ayn Rand's major contribution to the productive people of society was that one should not feel guilty about one's financial success. That,in the end,the one major weapon that collectivists and socialists have to disarm people who earned their wealth in a free market was to lay a guilt trip on those same people. Ayn Rand took that weapon and philosophically and intellectually,using logic and reason,destroyed it. To this we owe Ayn Rand a debt of gratitude.

Burke Chester writes:

Another 50+ year fan! We are getting on up there.

The older I get, the more I learn to appreciate the fundamentals of her philosophy. It's amazing how often I find myself in an argument with someone over the question of whether or not a chair is a chair (or if A is A). Try it sometime.

Harry Binswanger writes:

For more on Ayn Rand's dissection of envy, see my Ayn Rand Lexicon, now online: with excerpts from her article "The Age of Envy" in Return of the Primitive.

Her theory of happiness is largely wrong? Really? Because it's pretty simple and easily verified by introspection: "Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values."

As to her personally, as an associate of hers for many years I can testify that she was a happy person. But after her beloved husband of 50 years died, she was quite depressed (and she lived only two years more).

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