The Curious Appeal of Ayn Rand
Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, recently made news by declaring himself an unabashed admirer of quasi-philosopher Ayn Rand. Reportedly, Rand’s books are required reading for Ryan’s staff. I think the case can be made that Ayn Rand appeals to people for the same reason Friedrich Nietzsche appeals to them. Her bold “truths” are not only an exciting mixture of defiance and heresy, they are epigrammatic and digestible enough not to over-tax the intellect.
But no matter what the Randians try to tell us, there’s no way you can base a life philosophy on her theories (“If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.”) any more than you can base one on the writings of Nietzsche. (“Woman is not yet capable of friendship: women are still cats and birds; or, at best, cows.”). As amusing as this material is, it’s flimsy. Too much spaghetti, not enough meatballs.
The two reasons why undergraduate students (and certain congressmen) get such a thrill out of Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism” philosophy: (1) it comes off as non-conformist and slightly “dangerous,” and (2) it unapologetically glorifies all those egotistical impulses we had as teenagers. There’s a smug, self-congratulatory element to it.
As far as traditional Western Philosophy goes, this infatuation with Rand is not something most students are likely to duplicate when reading the works of “real” philosophers—say, the writings of Baruch Spinoza or David Hume or Immanuel Kant. In fact, Kant’s austere, punishing discourse would likely frighten them.
Alas, today’s Randians—at least those affiliated with the conservative wing of the Republican Party (which is to say all Republicans)—are forced to tip-toe around Rand’s more controversial and embarrassing views. She was not only an avowed atheist, she would doubtless be pro-choice in today’s abortion debate. She also regarded marriage as an artificial constraint on those with the self-confidence and courage to live outside the “herd.”
One criticism of Rand derives from natural science, focusing on the extent to which her celebration of the autonomous man—her mythical version of the rugged individualist—flies in the face of what we know about biology. Much of the animal world is shining testimony to the virtues of collectivism and the necessity of working together to survive. Rugged individualism doesn’t seem to flourish in Nature.
Of course, collectivism is what Ayn Rand despised. She railed against it. But Rand’s binary premise—that we’re either timid sheep mindlessly following the herd, or heroic loners courageously marching to our own drummer—represents a false dichotomy. It’s more a rhetorical, literary device than a blueprint for living. Even though we all rejoice in seeing ourselves as unique individuals, most of us also recognize the strength and nobility of collectivism.
Labor unions are classic examples of this collectivist spirit. Corporations around the world (past, present and future) would love to have working people see themselves as loners, as isolated entities, as independent agents, which would allow management to play workers off against each other and pick them off one by one. Unions were established specifically to prevent that from happening.
Is there any institution less “Randian” than a union? Indeed, is there any institution more dedicated to the welfare of working people? Clearly, it’s not the Salvation Army or the Church or the federal government or the American Medical Association. As for Ayn Rand, she may be fun to discuss around the campfire, but her boutique philosophy isn’t likely to appeal to anyone seeking long-term solutions.