Saturday, November 5, 2016

Why everyone hates Ayn Rand

Dear Hannah,

There has probably, in the history of mankind, never been so enjoyable a teaching as Objectivism from so unlikeable a teacher as Ayn Rand.  Jesus was so magnetic that He spent His days ruining dinner parties and insulting His followers.  Despite this He was so fun that even the children loved playing with Him.  Joseph Smith was so popular with women that he felt forced to reintroduce polygamy to the Americas.  Mohammed was so interesting that he was illiterate and still ended up with one of the most propagated books in human history.  Ayn Rand's insults stung more than her teachings soothed.  The men who should have been her allies generally ended up becoming her enemies.    

William F. Buckley wrote in her eulogy not only of her infamous romantic split with fellow Objectivist Nathaniel Branden, but of her "incompatibility" with libertarians such as Henry Hazlitt and Ludwig Von Mises.  Her first words to Buckley were that he was too intelligent to believe in God.  She was known for throwing fits when she couldn't get her way.  She was (according to Slate Magazine) addicted to speed, and uninterested in keeping even the pretenses of marital fidelity.  The producer of The Godfather fell in love with Atlas Shrugged and wanted to film it, but she was so difficult that she forced him to drop it.  In short, she was a woman who preached happiness and was almost incapable of showing it; and as she was incapable of showing it, to those who knew her personally she was incapable of sharing it.  We can adore her because she hated the worst things out of communist Russia.  What's difficult to excuse is her not enjoying the best men in America.

It seems natural that someone who named her masterpiece The Virtue of Selfishness should herself be kind of a jackass.  But, in fact, it can be safely said that in order to be interested in your happiness you have to be interested in the happiness of others.  Objectivism isn't a philosophy of loners and sociopaths.  It's a reactionary backlash against the idea that you should only live for others; and even more important than this, a backlash against the idea that others should choose who we're going to live for

In fairness to Rand, the idea that you ought to live for yourself is something that everyone already does and most are afraid to admit.  The question is, why?  Well, first off, admitting it makes people wonder what exactly we're about to do.  You say you're in it for yourself and everyone thinks you're going to screw them over.  And second, at the bottom of our hearts we know that when other people are living freely for their own happiness, we're going to be carefully evaluated.  And so everyone begins to wonder if what he's offering is really worth others' investment; and whether others are sticking with him because they want to or because they ought to.  It's the difference in many cases between having a wife and having a girlfriend.  One relationship is ruled by duty.  The other is ruled by pleasure.  Objectivism challenges the whole spectrum of duties, and leaves everyone wondering whether we're pleasurable.  Jesus says love your neighbor as yourself.  Rand says if you love yourself, make your neighbor love you.

In many respects Rand's hatred of duty was deplorable, and a decline in a nation's sense of duty may be safely correlated with a decline in a nation's safety.  But it's worth asking if the alternative is worse. An Objectivist, after all, was never essentially opposed to giving your life for your country.  He's only asking whether your country is worth giving your life for; and he has the nasty tendency to ask the question about every other relationship as well.  Rand never said that you had to lack a life-defying meaning.  She merely said you had to mean it.

Perhaps most unfairly on our part, Americans are quick to judge Rand for one of the things she was most likely to suffer from -- and that is her (ironically) being a product of Soviet Russia.  Orlando Figes writes in his historical masterpiece A People's Tragedy that centuries of censorship had been debilitating to the Russians; and that like the sheltered Russian intelligentsia who'd discovered Hegelianism in the 1840's and Darwinism in the 60's and Marxism in the 90's and took them too seriously, a person who's never heard anything but an "official" philosophy is likely to take his next one religiously.  And while we might wish she'd found her religion in something as balancing as Acton's or Buckley's liberal Catholicism, she found it instead in an unbalanced worship of capitalism.  We often excuse foreigners for some of the backward things they do after coming from backward countries.  Rand's unyielding dogmatism is a product of her intellectual starvation; and while we may laugh at her for saying Aristotle was the only good philosopher, we never considered that she might have thought so because in youth she never had a chance to read Burke or Macaulay.       

Ayn Rand, of course, failed so miserably at being happy that she made it difficult to take her philosophy seriously.  But she had purpose; and pleasure is much different from purpose.  We might also say it's inferior to purpose.  We might even say that if you want to have a really good time, you've got to have a gospel.  And when we look at Rand's life and we see her falling in love with freedom while the free world was openly flirting with tyranny, and asserting the reality of truth when so many Americans were toying with relativism, and holding so passionately to the things that a lazy and willfully ignorant society was taking for granted, we begin to see something more than just a frumpy, bigoted, implacable Jewish girl running from communist Russia.  We see the dawn of classical liberalism happening in someone's soul, right as she was entering a civilization where classical liberalism was dying.

As such, we appreciate her frustration.  We only wish that in her love of classical liberalism she had remembered her liberality; and that in her love of the abstract concept of capitalism she had remembered to love her fellow capitalists.

Your father,


  1. I like this. Thought provoking and relatively accurate (her masterpiece, of course, was Atlas Shrugged, and she titled The Virtue of Selfishness the way she did because "selfish" is such a loaded term).

    When I was a kid, I used to get screamed at, called vile names and slapped around a lot for being selfish. When I would ask a simple question like What Did I Do?? the response was usually something like "it's nothing you did; it's your selfish attitude" (I was raised in a very mean-spirited variety of Catholicism, and would bet that I am far from the only post-objectivist libertarian with this kind of history).

    I get into college (which I selfishly financed myself with no help from parents, BTW) and discover Ayn Rand. Lo and Behold!!! She says selfishness is a moral duty. Wow. Talk about an earthshaking paradigm shift. Paradigm shift does not even begin to describe it. Neither does earthshaking (maybe that's what college is for??)

    Anyway, discovering her work saved my sanity; possibly my life.

    But there is no doubt in my mind that she was pretty much her own worst enemy. Looking past that and all the goose stepping randroids and considering her work on it's own merits is key.

  2. You are insightful, and I appreciate you (much younger than me) know what I was "told" by older students when I arrived at 18 to study what Friedman was teaching about economics. I had read Von Mises, and Menger.
    They warned me away from "Objectivists," because they were friends with Rothbard and they had attended "the collective" gatherings in Rand's apartment. They described her exactly as you have formulated your profile of her. Her "true believers" are indeed sometimes obnoxious, but once one masters their jargon (and some useful categories), they can be quite pleasant even if one disagrees with some sentimental aspects of the "boundries of benevolence" in Aristotle's chapter on Friendship.