When I was 14, I picked up Atlas Shrugged thinking it was a science fiction novel.
My critique at the time was one word: boring. As science fiction, it didn’t measure up to Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Orson Scott Card, or any of the other science fiction I was reading at the time. Even L. Ron Hubbard.
With so many folks referring to Ayn Rand in the news recently and with the new release of Atlas Shrugged, I thought I’d revisit Rand to better understand it.
Here are a few quick notes.
- Rand places a strong emphasis on reason as a guiding principle. This is similar to many enlightenment philosophies that also emphasized reason as a guiding principle.
- It’s OK to be selfish. I remember the moment when I first realized that it was ok to be selfish and want things for myself. At the time, this was a bit of a revelation and I believe that this is why people are drawn to Rand. It’s OK to want things for yourself. I just don’t believe this should be the sole motivation for an entire philosophy (see below).
- The broad sweeping generalization that all the world’s previous philosophies stem solely from altruism. This is ridiculous. In fact, I can’t think of one that takes the stance of saying altruism should be the sole guiding principle. All of them seem to stress a balance. Rand posits that there is only black and white, selfishness and altruism. Remember the Bible: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The advice is not just to help others but to treat them in the way in which you would like to be treated. Sounds like there’s some selfishness in there to me.
- Rand’s denial of history. Mike Wallace lays out the case quite well in his 1959 interview: “You’re asking in a sense for a devil take the high most, dog-eat-dog society, and one of the main reasons for the growth of government controls, was to fight the robber barons, to fight laissez-faire, in which the very people whom you admire the most, Ayn, the hard-headed industrialist, the successful men, perverted the use of their power.”
- When Rand says reason, whose reason is she talking about? The short history of her movement seemed to indicate that what she really meant was her reason.
- Reason as an all-encompassing system. Bertrand Russell, a mathematician, set out to define such a system in his Principia Mathematica. And failed. In fact, another mathematician, Kurt Godel, actually proved that such a system could not exist. BTW- Godel first described his incompleteness theorems in 1930, 1931.
- Rand’s claim that separating economics from government will create a utopia. “If you separate the government from economics, if you do not regulate production and trade, you will have peaceful cooperation, and harmony and justice among men.” Really? Under these guidelines and Rand’s selfishness principle, wouldn’t it make sense to steal from someone rather than incure the costs of production? Even 18th century economists understood this. David Hume postulated 3 basic systems must exist in order to have a functioning market economy: 1) Stability of possession, 2) Transfer of consent, and 3) The performance of promises (also known as property, exchange, and contract. Otherwise, why pay for a shipment of goods after you’ve received them? To setup even these minimal conditions requires government.
- Rand’s idea that government is “suppressing” the Supermen. Riddle me this: If someone is indeed a Randian “superman,” wouldn’t this person be just as able to succeed under regulations that affect everyone equally as in a system with no regulations?
- Belief in a “frictionless” version of capitalism. From the Mike Wallace interview: “If you look at economics, and economic history, you will discover that all monopolies have been established with government help, with the help of franchises, subsidies, or any kind of government privileges. In free competition, no one could corner the market on a needed product. History will support me.” It’s the generalizations without evidence like “History will support me” that are the first sign something is wrong. But ask an economist. It’s nice to believe in a frictionless world, but ask any of them if they think it’s possible. In real life, monopolies happen, and the only way to break them up sometimes is through government regulation.
In summary, Rand makes an interesting first start to economics and philosophy.
If you encounter people who have just discovered Rand and are interested in this type of thing, one book I’d highly recommend is Economics Without Illusions by Joseph Heath.
Another couple are:
- Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou – The story of Bertrand Russell in graphic novel format.
- Godel, Escher, Back by Douglas Hofstadter – Kurt Godel’s proof explained for the layman.
And if you’re looking for science fiction, any of the following are better than Atlas Shrugged:
- Philip K. Dick
- Robert Heinlein
- Ray Bradbury
- Isaac Asimov
- Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson
- Kurt Vonnegut
- William Gibson
- Ursula K. LeGuin