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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ayn Rand: great, tragic

And now I'll add a few drops to the current torrent of commentary about Ayn Rand. I've read one of the two new bios, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right and am likely to read the other, Ayn Rand and the World She Made. But her life story can be a bit depressing, so I prefer to space these readings out a bit.

Rand elicits fervent admiration from some, intense loathing from others, and ambivalence from those who think some of her ideas interesting and valuable, others objectionable. Mark me down in the ambivalent category, and note that Rand herself had little use for those expressing partial agreement.

Her profile tends to rise at times of stepped-up government overreaching -- times such as the present and the Great Society florescence of the 1960s. Her ideas become a rallying cry of the opposition, as with recent talk about people putatively or potentially “going Galt” (i.e., withdrawing their talents from a government-dominated society, like her Atlas Shrugged hero John Galt).

Hers was a no-compromise philosophy and style. She championed “full laissez-faire capitalism”; the mixed economy was an abomination, regardless of the portions in the mix. Thus, her influence tends to give some backbone to the anti-big-government forces, but also tends to be self-limiting. Not many people want “full laissez-faire capitalism,” a fact Rand would regard as profound moral corruption but which is better explained as a healthy skepticism toward radicalism, utopianism and abstract ideology.

Rand thought her political stance followed inexorably from deeper principles. "I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason,” she wrote. “If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.”

Rand’s emphasis on rationality was and is a bracing tonic against the conservative tendency to fall back upon religious faith in formulating political arguments. But Rand’s view of reason was idiosyncratic, strongly emphasizing the a priori over the empirical. She disregarded the health risks of smoking, for instance, on the grounds that statistics were epistemologically unreliable. Similarly, she pronounced that physics had been corrupted by bad philosophy, without knowing much of anything about physics.

She had a healthy contempt for the “anarchocapitalists” who followed her thinking to what they saw as its logical conclusion in their advocacy of a stateless society. She thought, plausibly, that government is needed to defend against aggression and adjudicate disputes. But given her black-and-white dogmatism, it is unsurprising that some of her onetime adherents went out looking for further extremes to embrace.

The greatness of Ayn Rand is that she presented thought-provoking ideas in a powerful way. The tragedy is not that some of her ideas were wrong, but that her philosophy was designed to deny that possibility.

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