Having waded through her complete works, Gerald L. Houseman concludes that there should never, ever be an Ayn Rand revival
The sales of Ayn Rand's books achieved biblical proportions quite a long time ago. Perhaps the Bible outsells individual works - Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead or We the Living - but her total sales volume seriously rivals that of the Good Book. This does not appear to have alarmed those on the religious Right, despite their tendency towards over-excitement. One might expect a title such as The Virtue of Selfishness to set off some of their bells, but it doesn't.
Any attempt to review her work can be misleading if we treat Rand purely as an author. She created the Objectivist movement, asserting that there are objective truths and rules of human conduct derived from reason and the terms of self-interest. When Objectivist precepts are discovered and developed, they supposedly can be built into a set of logically connected constructs.
Rationality and self-interest are synonymous entities in Rand's scheme, and they stand in stark contrast to altruism and charity - impulses considered to be violations of good manners and common sense that, left unchecked, could lead to the downfall of Western civilisation.
Seven decades of Randian influence and activity have shown us that Objectivism should be considered a war on altruism, a behaviour her acolytes consider antithetical to everyone's best interests because it can be used as an effective prop by statists and socialists. These kinds of "tyrants" and their supporters can be expected to seek power at our expense, for they cause gullible people and opportunistic free-riders to support basic changes in making political choices for us. They will invariably ignore or debase selfishness, Rand states over and over again (her books are some of the most repetitive ever published), even though she believes that it can be defended as an obvious and personally self-evident need of most, if not all, individuals. And selfishness, she strongly believed, is a virtue that should not only be acknowledged but encouraged. Yes, encouraged! Property rights and an economy of free trade along the lines set up by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations - a laissez-faire world, in other words - are central to the core of Objectivism and the individualism Rand believes it sires and promotes.
This individualism, in turn, finds expression and indeed identity through creativity. But when Rand writes of creativity, it appears to take on special meaning, for her world is one in which heroes are concentrated in only a few select endeavours - architecture, art, writing and, above all, entrepreneurship.
The "captains of industry", as she calls them, are the most creative of all; but whatever their field of work, competence and marvellous leadership talents are the key. One of the great minds we meet in Atlas Shrugged is a CEO type who builds a coast-to-coast railroad across America without any government help, even though no such person has ever existed. John Galt, the leading hero of this excessively long lecture - which is what the book really is - leads a "mind strike" that puts all of the rest of us dummies in our place. And Howard Roark, the architect-hero of The Fountainhead, who builds the tallest building in the world, is loved by his employees even though he is unapproachable, almost inhuman and never engages in small talk.
Whatever their quirks, these creative and superior people are able to maximise their individualism, as well as the creativity with which it goes hand in hand, only through a largely unregulated arena of the type Rand's detractors would call dog eat dog.
Capitalism is, according to one of her titles, "the unknown ideal". And the foremost task of Objectivists is to provide capitalism with a strong intellectual defence. It is a big responsibility, no doubt, but there are only a few tenets to understand: there can be no real disputes between rational thinkers, the rules of self-interest and rationality are discoverable and discernible, and all individuals are blessed with rights while societies, which are a mere abstraction, have no rights. No collective, no group has any rights because any notion of collective rights would ultimately mean that some have rights but others do not. A rude and cynical class consciousness intrudes on all these thoughts, of course, and Rand demonstrates this by soaking any working-class people in her novels with a generalised blame rooted variously in inattentiveness, laziness, doltish attitudes and, above all, envy.
It is obvious that some characteristics of her novels, such as the last mentioned, detract from her message. She had a strong tendency, for example, to be overtly anti-feminist; for while her industrial heroes could be assertive and thoughtful, their women could not. In Atlas Shrugged, for example, Dagny Taggart, the epic's female lead, is described in a scene as having "the diamond band on the wrist of her naked arm (that) gave her the most feminine of all aspects: the look of being chained". And while she titles various parts of The Fountainhead with names of various males, both good and bad, poor Dominique Francon, Howard Roark's beloved, never gets such a part named for her. You may think she would deserve better treatment than this.
A characteristic peculiar to Rand that detracts mightily from her works in a spectacular way is her enthusiasm for such inanimate objects as machines, trains, high-tension wires, factories and industrial areas of cities. Her unstinting praise of the so-called geniuses of entrepreneurial bent is difficult enough to swallow; but her paroxysms of delight as she ponders smoke-belching steel mills or grease-covered railroad bridges, page after page, will cause thoughtful readers to experience feelings of profound and abject embarrassment.
So why, we should ask, had ideas and approaches similar to Objectivism not been thought out, or carried out, before Rand came along? Because the people like her heroes have been too busy making money and building a great industrial society, she has explained; don't we all realise that? Such people rarely have the time to pause and pontificate on any subject, especially when they more or less instinctively know these basic Randian axioms of society, culture, economics and politics. And of course the question arises: what about the rest of us? Those who are not so fortunate or benighted with overwhelming virtues? Wasting my time by reading every one of her novels and essays, I have concluded that there are few, if any, steps we inferiors can take; certainly there is no collective action that would win Rand's approval. We are assigned simply to put our faith in the creative rich.
The year 2009, however, has shown us that this is hardly the time for such faith. The privatising and non-regulatory urges pervading the US Government since the beginning of the century (and particularly since the 1980s) have brought many of us to the very end of our patience and to a finale for our faith in the capitalist system, or in the wealthy, or in those captains of industry - and especially of finance - in whose hands we are supposed to place our lives and hopes. A quick example: one of Rand's most ardent students, Alan Greenspan, who headed the Federal Reserve for years and said that all his economic knowledge - all of it - came from Rand, is now regarded as one of the major miscreants of the current worldwide economic malaise. (He now admits that he expected more self-regulation from the bankers and Wall Street types. Thanks for nothing, Alan!) If ever there was to be a time or date for Rand or Objectivism, it surely seems not to be the present.
Twenty-seven years after her death, there are still some prominent people who bow to Rand. There are the usual suspects, of course, such as the "thinkers" attached to various right-wing foundations, or the occasional conservative politician or political staffer. Some of the more prominent of the impressed, according to recent press reports, are entertainers such as Angelina Jolie. And, odd as it may seem, some of these people are new or recent converts. Perhaps they just have a poor sense of timing in addition to their inexplicable sense of judgment. There are also persistent rumours that a film company is looking into a big production of Atlas Shrugged for a television series, and this could bring in new Objectivist converts, such as those who do not read. Bringing such a film into existence at a time of stressful capitalism certainly raises any number of questions.
This is more than a question of timing or bad luck, however; for there is an even bigger snag, a bigger poison in the pudding, which destroys any so-called philosophy invented by Rand. An article in a 1986 issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, although it remains too often ignored, leaves no hope whatever for the many defenders and apologists for the allegedly "free" market. The co-authors of this contribution assert and prove that there is no such thing as a "free-enterprise system", simply because all the bargains taking place in a market system are characterised by an information deficit on one side or the other. This gap reflects an information advantage that one side invariably holds over the other in any deal so that there are, in fact, no truly equitable financial agreements to be had. And it is because of this absence of equity that free enterprise can achieve only what can be regarded as a mythic status. This not only applies to the free-enterprise myth itself, however; it applies to all its constituent elements, such as Adam Smith's "invisible hand", which was perennially held to be a kind of guarantor of self-interest that allegedly made the whole system work. But there is no invisible hand, just as there is no free enterprise.
The economics profession belatedly recognised these findings and their effect on their discipline when its Nobel prize was awarded in 2001 to Joseph E. Stiglitz, one of the authors of the 1986 Quarterly Journal of Economics article. And the mortal blow wrought by the new "information economics" is quite complete: the free-enterprise system and the invisible hand have not only died, but also the many works based on them, such as the long-lasting contribution of Adam Smith or, for those who take them seriously, the bestselling works of Ayn Rand. There are many other casualties, of course: the works of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, the books and articles of thousands of others, and far from least, the work of the many free-enterprise foundations such as the Heritage Institute, the Cato Institute, the Hudson Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution and Britain's Adam Smith Institute. The "studies" emanating from these sources for the past six or seven decades have all undergone the shredding they deserve, intellectually at least, although the foundations themselves - despite having nothing to say or do now - pour out a continuous load of propaganda based on assumptions that have been totally disproved.
For the Randy people, Objectivism remains the basis of discussions in their local societies, one can be sure, while the Ayn Rand Institute and Reason magazine (an odd name indeed when one considers the cause to which it is devoted) continues its task of publishing, worshipping and misleading.
Sadly, the economics profession itself has not sufficiently caught up with the findings and trends that have undone much or most of its work, although time tends to work well, at least in the long run, for science and truth.
Gerald L. Houseman is professor emeritus of political science, Indiana University. His most recent book is Economics in a Changed Universe: Joseph E. Stiglitz, Globalization, and the Death of Free Enterprise (2008) and he is working on a novel, Holland's War.