Ayn Rand Was a Dangerous, Pseudo-Intellectual Piece of Garbage
Her philosophy has been roundly discredited, yet she still wields tremendous influence on virtually all aspects of society.
Every now and then, a politician will make the unfortunate choice of quoting Ayn Rand because they found a statement that seemingly supports individualism, small government, personal responsibility, or a strong work ethic. However, what they don’t realize is that beyond a few clever soundbites, Ayn Rand was not only a despicable person but she pushed a dangerous philosophy that has been laughed at by philosophers since its inception. Her only supporters today are those that haven’t read her work beyond surface level or are equally despicable.
For example, Karen Buck, a UK Labor Party representative, tweeted an Ayn Rand quote on July 18th, 2021:“We are fast approaching the stage of ultimate inversion: the stage where government is free to do as it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission.” On the surface, this is a perfectly reasonable sentiment, in which she was advocating for the protection of individual freedoms against an encroaching state. Likewise, Texas Senator Ted Cruz shared this quote on Twitter: “collectivists achieve their ideal by burning cities and books, then implementing central planning. Now everyone is equal: equally poor, equally housed, equally limited in what they can say and do and think.” Again, this is hard to argue with because it sounds like she was defending books, civilization, and personal achievement.
But after reading deeper into Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, it becomes obvious that she argued against basic compassion, cultural understanding, charity, and cooperation, as she believed these impede individual achievement and hold back human progress. In Philosophy: Who Needs It, she said “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” She also applauded the genocide of Native Americans because they valued collectivism, supported Israel because they’re bringing civilization and technology to the “primitive” Muslim world, and generally supported the elimination of what she deemed lesser cultures.
And this philosophy has infiltrated right-wing mentality. For example, former Speak of the House Paul Ryan went all in on supporting Ayn Rand. He was caught on tape saying “Because there is no better place to find the moral case for capitalism and individualism than through Ayn Rand’s writings and works.” He also said “I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.” He even made his staff read her books. Moreover, Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was his favorite book. Mike Pompeo, who was the Director of the CIA and followed Tillerson as Trump’s Secretary of State, cited her as a major source of inspiration. Trump himself was a fan, as The Fountainhead is one of the few books he claims to have enjoyed.
Unfortunately, all of these people quoting and allowing Ayn Rand’s Objectivism to guide their beliefs, don’t understand what she meant and that her reasoning was laughable. If they actually read her philosophy, they’d know it’s deeply flawed and brings out the worst in humanity. Perhaps if people understood Objectivism, then they’d realize how dangerous it is and also wonder why so many people that subscribe to her ideas are in positions of power.
What Is Objectivism?
Ayn Rand’ Objectivism is based on a handful of simple ideas, which lead to the ultimate conclusion that it’s good to be selfish. In The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism she said that “Only a rationally selfish man, a man of self esteem, is capable of love — because he is the only man capable of holding firm, consistent, uncompromising, unbetrayed value.”
- Reality exists independently from human consciousness. A person’s thoughts, beliefs, feelings, etc. have no influence on objective reality. “Reality is that which exists; the unreal does not exist.” -Atlas Shrugged
- Humans can only have contact with reality through their senses, and everything else gets in the way. “Those who tell you that man is unable to perceive a reality undistorted by his senses, mean that they are unwilling to perceive a reality undistorted by their feelings.” -Atlas Shrugged
- Humans can use sensory information to create concepts of reality and then use inductive logic to understand it and create new ideas. “Truth is the recognition of reality; reason, man’s only means of knowledge, is his only standard of truth.” -Atlas Shrugged
- Humans’ only goal is to increase individual happiness, which is the only measure of morality. “The proper method of judging when or whether one should help another person is by reference to one’s own rational self-interest and one’s own hierarchy of values: The time, money or effort one gives or the risk one takes should be proportionate to the value of the person in one’s own happiness.” -Emergency Ethics
- Laissez-faire capitalism is the only system that allows people to maximize their individual happiness, and therefore it is the only moral one. “Every honest man lives for himself. Every man worth calling a man lives for himself. The one who doesn’t — doesn’t live at all.” -We the Living
If you’re a child or a half-asleep adult, it seems like she’s advocating for valuing individualism over collectivism because the intelligent and productive are constrained by society and the government, which are inevitably run by lesser people. Geniuses are unable to produce and push humanity forward because the masses are imposing their rules and morality on them. In her mind, society should be led by lone geniuses that are not encumbered by the unwashed masses.
These ideas are the foundation of all 3 of her major novels. In her 1937 novella Anthem, a dystopian society has eliminated individualism and controls all scientific advancement. The main character Equality 7–2521 rebels by doing his own scientific research, which leads him to rediscover electricity. Because this is unauthorized research, the World Council of Scholars orders him to be punished, so he flees civilization, rediscovers the word ‘I’ in an old book, and plans the rebirth of a free society. In The Fountainhead, the main character Howard Roark is a visionary architect, but his ideas are considered too revolutionary. He then dynamites a building because they changed his plans. At his trial, he successfully defends himself by standing up for individualism. In Atlas Shrugged, captains of industry like John Galt, Dagny Taggart, Henry Reardon, and many others are fed up with the people’s encroaching socialist agenda, so they shut down their industries, collapsing society, to form their own purely capitalistic society. So all of her novels are just Objectivism disguised by lackluster plots and flimsy characters.
While it may seem innocent enough on the surface, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism leads to some remarkably disgusting outcomes, not to mention the fact that it doesn’t make much sense.
Ayn Rand Was Unapologetically Racist
If you follow Objectivism to its natural conclusion, then you can find justification for one race or culture subjugating another. In Ayn Rand’s Swiss cheese of a brain, the group on top deserves to be on top because they have values that better allow for individual achievement. Some cultures are inherently flawed because they are founded in collectivism, and, therefore, they deserve to be dominated and eventually eliminated. As despicable as this sounds, she’s gone to great lengths to prove it’s actually what she believes.
For example, in The Fountainhead, she said “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.” And who are the savages she referred to? Was she being allegorical? No, she’s was talking about Native Americans, Muslims, and pretty much all non-White races. Read what she had to say in 1974 in a speech at West Point, during which she justifies and applauds Native American genocide, because they were savages and had no rights to the land:
“Let’s suppose they were all beautifully innocent savages, which they certainly were not. What was it that they were fighting for, if they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their right to keep part of the earth untouched, unused, and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal? Any white person who brings the elements of civilization had the right to take over this continent, and it is great that some people did, and discovered here what they couldn’t do anywhere else in the world and what the Indians, if there are any racist Indians today, do not believe to this day: respect for individual rights.”
Her thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are just as stupid and horrible:
“I am, incidentally, in favor of Israel against the Arabs for the very same reason. There you have the same issue in reverse. Israel is not a good country politically; it’s a mixed economy, leaning strongly to socialism. But why do the Arabs resent it? Because it is a wedge of civilization-an industrial wedge-in part of a continent which is totally primitive and nomadic. Israel is being attacked for being civilized, and being specifically a technological society. It’s for that very reason that they should be supported-that they are morally right because they represent the progress of Man’s mind, just as the white settlers of America represented the progress of the mind, not centuries of brute stagnation and superstition. They represented the banner of the mind and they were in the right.”
After her speech, the students and faculty at West Point gave her a standing ovation. Years before, she demonstrated a lack of understanding and outright disdain for lesser developed societies. In her 1966 collection of essays Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, she said
“This is said to civilized men who are to venture into countries where sacred cows are fed, while children are left to starve — where female infants are killed or abandoned by the roadside- where men go blind, medical help being forbidden by their religion — where women are mutilated, to insure their fidelity — where unspeakable tortures are ceremonially inflicted on prisoners — where cannibalism is practiced. Are these the ‘cultural riches’ which a Western man is to greet with ‘brotherly love’? Are these the ‘valuable elements’ which he is to admire and adopt? Are these the ‘fields’ in which he is not to regard himself as superior? And when he discovers entire populations rotting alive in such conditions, is he not to acknowledge, with a burning stab of pride — of pride and gratitude — the achievements of his nation and his culture, of the men who created them and left him a nobler heritage to carry forward?”
Would Ted Cruz, et al. still cite Ayn Rand as an influence if they knew Objectivism leads to these types of ideas and that Ayn Rand was such a genuine piece of human garbage? It’s also worth wondering to what extent her ideas influenced major foreign and domestic policy decisions, considering that her supporters occupied the highest levels of the US government.
Her ideas on human nature, economics, and government and equally wrong and disturbing.
Ayn Rand Didn’t Understand Human Nature
Margaret Mead, a cultural anthropologist and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, once said that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000-year-old healed femur. In nature, a broken femur meant a likely death, but the fact that this person survived long enough for it to heal meant that somebody took care of him or her. Somebody was not self-interested and expressed compassion, which Mead suggested is an important step in building a cohesive and productive group. Although there’s a lot of debate around this idea, it demonstrates how wrong Ayn Rand was, as she said “There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them.” If Ayn Rand was there 15,000 years ago, she would have left this injured person to die.
And there’s a lot of science to back up the fact that cooperation is hard-wired into us. For example, a study published in the scientific journal Nature Human Behaviour demonstrated that children as young as 6 instinctually find ways to preserve and distribute a collectively held resource. The researchers set up a unique version of a common-pool resource (CPR) dilemma, in which the children were allowed to collect as much water as they wanted from a pool. However, the more water they collected, the slower the pool would refill, meaning the children could maximize their returns by coordinated restraint. In fact, the researchers claimed the “children were capable of collectively preventing resource collapse by spontaneously generating inclusive rules, equally distributing the rewards and distracting one another from the delay-of-gratification task.” Not being self-interested led to better outcomes for everyone.
Another study from Nature Human Behaviour demonstrated that children make personal sacrifices to benefit the group. Through a series of experiments, the researchers found that the children took risks or acted against their own self-interest in 3 circumstances: 1. when other group members had more resources than them, 2. when other group members have acted unfairly, and 3. when other group members had more resources than others. The researchers said that “The latter two responses mark a critical departure from what is observed in other species because they enable fairness to be upheld even when doing so goes against self-interest.” Again, valuing the needs of the group seems to be part of human nature.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma, a simple demonstration of game theory, helps explain this idea mathematically. In this scenario, two criminals have been arrested for robbing a liquor store and for murder. As seen in every cop drama, the police separate the criminals for interrogation so they can’t coordinate their responses and to see if one will turn on the other for a better deal. The police have enough evidence to convict both for the liquor store robbery, but they can’t prove they committed the murder. If the criminals are willing to rat-out the other, they are willing to give him a deal. The grid below shows the outcomes of the criminals’ choices.
- Starting in the top-right box, if Player A chooses to betray Player B and Player B chooses to cooperate with his friend by staying silent, then A will receive 0 years in prison, as he helped the police, and B will receive 3 years in prison, as the police now have evidence that he committed the murder and the robbery.
- In the bottom-right box, if both A and B rat the other out, then the police will have evidence to convict both for the murder and the robbery, yet both were willing to give up information. For being helpful, the police give each 2 years in prison.
- In the bottom-left box, if B betrays A and A chooses to cooperate with his friend by staying silent, then B will get 0 years and A will get 3.
- In the upper left box, if both choose to help each other and stay silent, then the police can only convict them for the robbery and each will get 1 year in prison.
If you were Player B, for example, would you choose to betray or cooperate with your friend, considering that there’s no way to know what decision he’ll make? If you choose to cooperate your friend, your outcome will be 1 or 3 years, whereas choosing to betray your friend will result in 0 or 2 years depending on what your friend decides. Of course, choosing to betray has better outcomes. Likewise, Player A also has better outcomes for himself if he chooses to betray. Therefore, as self-interested parties, A and B would choose to betray each other, resulting in 2 years in prison for both (the bottom-right box). However, this is not the best outcome. If they were not self-interested and focused on the other person’s outcomes, then cooperating is the best option, leading to only 1 year for each (the top-left box). In other words, being self-interested in this case doesn’t lead to the best result.
Ayn Rand, however, believes humans are born a tabula rasa and that any collective instinct is due to indoctrination. According to her, as the most evolved animals, humans have gained the ability to override biology, whereas other species are bound by their instincts. In a journal entry on May 9th, 1934 she wrote, “For instance, when discussing the social instinct — does it matter whether it had existed in the early savages? Supposing men were born social (and even that is a question) — does it mean that they have to remain so? If man started as a social animal — isn’t all progress and civilization directed toward making him an individual? Isn’t that the only possible progress? If men are the highest of animals, isn’t man the next step?”
No, Ayn. Humans naturally have both individual and group-forming instincts. Evolution is not the process of selecting individualism over collectivism. Humans are social creatures, and it’s why we are so successful as a species. From hunters coordinating to trap game, to the many teachers that’ve sacrificed their time and money to ensure the next generation is educated, civilization is not possible unless through both cooperation and individual achievement. Even Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, agrees in his Theory of Moral Sentiments “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him.”
Ayn Rand Didn’t Understand Economics
Based on her rabid individualism, Ayn Rand advocated for laissez-faire capitalism. Literally translated it means “let you do,” meaning that people should be allowed to conduct business with no interference from the government. According to Rand, society depends on the innovations and hard work of individuals, and the government and other people only serve as obstacles. But, once again, she displayed her depth of understanding.
Going back to the example above, John Nash, the mathematician who was the focus of the book and movie A Beautiful Mind, won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his contributions to game theory. The Nobel Committee said it was for his “pioneering analysis of equilibria in the theory of non-cooperative games.” In his abnormally short dissertation published in 1950, he showed how the economy benefits from parties cooperating for the good of the market, instead of their own self-interest. In particular, he described the concept of a Nash Equilibrium, in which self-interested parties try to maximize their returns, leading to a scenario in which no party can improve. As we already saw in the Prisoner’s Dilemma example above, A and B achieved worse results when only thinking of themselves, as their calculations led them to meet in the bottom-right, suboptimal square. In economics, Nash Equilibria are used to help regulate monopolies, prosecute unfair trade practices, design auctions, punish corporate polluters, encourage corporate outreach, etc. In essence, Nash Equilibria are a mathematical justification for regulating the free market, as the free market, left to itself, doesn’t always produce the best results.
Furthermore, Ayn Rand’s economic ideas have actually been tried in earnest, and the results were terrible. For example, Sears CEO Eddie Lambert reorganized the company to align with her idealized corporate structure. Instead of a traditional hierarchy, in which the company functions as a cohesive unit, Lambert divided it into 30 separate units. The idea was that the units would be measured and compensated based on their profitability relative to the others, thus forcing competition and leading to more productivity and innovation. However, the units turned on each other and did what they could to undermine and sabotage the others, at the expense of the Sears brand. In fact, Lambert’s decision is cited as one of the major reasons that the Sears corporation is now defunct.
“It got crazy. Executives started undermining other units because they knew their bonuses were tied to individual unit performance. They began to focus solely on the economic performance of their unit at the expense of the overall Sears brand. One unit, Kenmore, started selling the products of other companies and placed them more prominently that Sears’ own products. Units competed for ad space in Sears’ circulars, and since the unit with the most money got the most ad space, one Mother’s Day circular ended up being released featuring a mini bike for boys on its cover. Units were no longer incentivized to make sacrifices, like offering discounts, to get shoppers into the store.”
A much bigger example is the economy of Hong Kong, which is also based on laissez-faire capitalism, as Ayn Rand would’ve wanted. For many of her acolytes, Hong Kong is the paragon of a free market, though the statistics demonstrate it’s not working. For example, according to the local government’s official statistics, of the 1.4 million people that live there over a 1/5th were living below the poverty line in 2019. However, because the the situation was unsustainable, the government needed to intervene: “recurrent cash measures lifted 392,900 people out of poverty and reduced the poverty rate by 5.6 percentage points last year.” The reason for such a high poverty rate can be explained by its high wealth inequality. According to Reuters, “the city’s top 21 richest people held assets more valuable than the government’s HK$1.8 trillion ($230 billion) fiscal reserves. A handful of private conglomerates dominate nearly every aspect of economic life.” Therefore, Hong Kong is not exactly the capitalist utopia it’s supposed to be.
Ayn Rand Didn’t Understand Government
Ayn Rand believed the government was the enemy of the people. She said “Potentially, a government is the most dangerous threat to man’s rights: it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims.” This is a common theme in her writings, and her followers echo similar statements on a regular basis, though none of them seem to realize what government actually does and why it’s important.
First of all, the government plays an essential role in providing for the general welfare of the people. The first clause of Article I, Section 8, reads, “The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States.” The term “general welfare” is certainly open to interpretation, but just about every nation on Earth agrees that this includes providing clean water, roads, public schools, and electricity to the best of their ability. However, in the US, the same people tweeting and following Ayn Rand believe these services function more efficiently when the government is not involved. As already shown above, this idea doesn’t work out.
For example, in February, 2021, Texas experienced a prolonged cold snap that knocked-out most of the state’s energy production capabilities, as equipment had not been properly winterized. And why was the equipment not ready to withstand freezing temperatures? Because Governor Greg Abbott appointed antigovernment advocates to the state’s Public Utility Commission, who then canceled a contract with the Texas Reliability Entity, whose job it is to oversee the electrical grid. The Houston Chronicle reported that “right up until the crippling storm that plunged millions of Texans into the dark and cold, the state agency overseeing the power industry operated without an independent monitor to make sure energy companies followed state protocols, which include weatherization guidelines.” This same commission also relaxed standards and reduced the budget. The idea, once again, was that the government and their regulations were standing in the way of competition. At least 210 people died as a result, and energy companies raked in $16 billion in excess profit, as they were able to charge more due to variable pricing schemes. This is a perfect example of what could happen when the government isn’t able to properly regulate basic utilities according to Ayn Rand’s free market ideal.
In 2013, the people of Honduras experienced a similar story. After the military coup d’état in 2009, the constitution was changed to enrich those in charge. One of these changes was the creations of autonomous free-trade zones, governed by corporations with no government intervention, and the result was disheartening. Edwin Lyngar traveled across Honduras and described the situation like this: “The government won’t fix the roads, so these desperate entrepreneurs fill in potholes with shovels of dirt or debris. They then stand next to the filled-in pothole soliciting tips from grateful motorists. That is the wet dream of libertarian private sector innovation.” Because of this experience, Lyngar renounced his support for Ayn Rand and her followers.
“You cannot start with the assumption that a Russian novel writer from the ’50s is a genius, so therefore all ideas about government and society must fit between the pages of ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ That concept is stupid, and sends you on the opposite course of “good outcomes for human beings.” The closer you get to totally untamed, uncontrolled privatization, the nearer you approach ‘Lord of the Flies.’”
Furthermore, the government is a major driver of basic research, which the economy depends on. Basic research can be defined as “activity aimed at acquiring new knowledge or understanding without specific immediate commercial application or use,” as opposed to applied research, which is “aimed at solving a specific problem or meeting a specific commercial objective.” Basic research is not profitable, and many corporations depend on it to turn a profit. In the United States, the government provides roughly 50% of basic research, whereas UNESCO reported that “On average in the European Union, 52% of the government’s budget appropriation for R&D went to basic research in 2013. There are wide variations from one country to another, however. Germany devotes 57% of the government appropriation for R&D to basic research, for instance, France 45% and the UK 40%.”
Microsoft, one of the biggest and most profitable corporations in the world, explained their views on government funded basic research: “that while both applied research and development are undeniably important, path-breaking discoveries are most likely to come from basic research, funded mainly by the federal government, carried out in the nation’s universities and national laboratories, and sustained over long periods of time.”
No, I’m Not a Communist
I can already hear the right-wing critics. I like individualism, I understand the benefits of a free market, and I don’t think the government has all the solutions.
As someone that’s actually lived and worked in a communist country, I can say unequivocally that the government controlling everything is a terrible idea. Let me tell you a story: It was 6:30 in the morning on the crowded, downtown streets of Hanoi, Vietnam. While sitting on my motorbike, along with a seemingly infinite sea of other motorbikes, waiting for the light to turn, one of the assault-rifle-carrying policemen put the barrel of the gun across my chest and motioned for me to bring my motorbike onto the curb. He looked like he was 16 years old. He told me that I had broken a number of laws, but it was okay because I could pay the fines right here and now. He wanted the equivalent of $700. In no mood for this, I told him in broken Vietnamese to get lost, at which point his commander approached and the 2 of them put me into their vehicle. After calling my boss, who had connections in the government, they agreed to let me go for only a few bucks each.
Situations like this are common in Vietnam, and they demonstrate how a powerful government can lead to some pretty awful things. Having said that, stripping the government of its power to perform basic functions, like regulating the economy and providing basic services, is equally wrong. Insisting on extreme individualism or extreme collectivism misses the benefits of both. Ayn Rand had a point in protecting individualism, but she took it to an absurd level.
Therefore, I’m merely advocating for moderation, as I believe Ayn Rand was an extremist. Objectivism does not lead to the utopia that she and her supporters hope for, in much the same way that communism only works on paper. In reality, both ideologies have been tried, and they don’t work. Instead, a healthy mix of individualism/collectivism and free market economics/centralized planning is the only reasonable path forward, with each country deciding which mix is best for themselves.
Originally published at http://thehappyneuron.com on July 28, 2021.