There is a tendency in the world of ideas to divide thinkers into saints and witches. Some are singled out for a hagiographic treatment. When others discover issues with their thoughts or lives, the switch is flipped and they become worthy of being burned. They are either valorized or demonized. This has happened to countless intellectuals: Voltaire, Jefferson, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Heidegger, and thousands more.
It’s all quite infantile. The better approach is one born of maturity. Read everything and everyone and learn what you can and toss out what’s wrong. Of course this requires work and thought. In fact, the saint/witch dichotomy is merely a mask for laziness. It’s a way of finding a fast track to truth that dispenses with the arduous task of actual research.
Few have been victimized by this habit as much as the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. People might encounter her work in high school and decide to adopt it as a personal credo, only to find out later in life that the world is more complicated than she describes and they turn against her.
This is all unfortunate. She was a singularly insightful intellectual from whom there is a vast amount to learn.
And yes, she is guilty too of ridiculous excesses, as brilliant minds are.
That said, there are precise contributions she has made that make her writings an indispensable guide to understanding modern life, both the problems and many of the answers.
1. Economic Freedom.
Have you heard that so much of our times reminds one of “Atlas Shrugged”? Indeed it is uncanny. In the novel, the state exercises overweening power and attempts to centrally manage economic life in all aspects big and small. Rand explains with evocative detail the cascading effects of such bureaucratic control and how it wrecks supply chains, demoralizes workers, puts aside innovations on behalf of incumbent technologies, and puts lives in grave danger. It forces a growing impoverishment on society by curbing the exercise of human ingenuity. Lesser minds rule great ones, spreading ignorance and brutality far and wide.
In one of my favorite sections, a leading industrial bureaucrat, Wesley Mouch, frustrated that production and inflation are not under control, issues an edict (Directive 10-289) to force everyone and everything to be exactly this year like it was last year. This included enough exceptions to win the loyalties of select industrialists who could later be blackmailed. Yep, it is all a pretty good approximation.
In her book, she imagines that there is a strike by the owners of capital who gather in a sanctuary that they have created to be safe from the crumbling that ensues throughout the society. There they share wisdom about freedom and rights and make plans to rebuild society after the final collapse.
The book contains passages of brilliance that take your breath away. It also has many pages that will have you rolling your eyes in frustration. Yes, it is a mix of tremendous insight plus painful pedanticism. Because it includes both, it has uncritical champions on one side and vicious critics on the other. This is all rather silly. It is a brilliant and flawed book in equal measure. Why can’t we live with that tension?
One of the seven deadly sins that was preached in the Middle Ages was envy. This is not just jealousy of another’s good fortune. It is the desire to plot destruction of the successful. It is taking satisfaction from the ruination of one’s betters. Sounds pretty ghastly, doesn’t it? Surely it is rare in society.
Actually, as you age and experience a wide enough range of professional life, you encounter envy everywhere. It is not rare. It is lurking around every corner. With every good fortune, you will recruit killers around you, people who smile to your face while waiting with a knife for you to turn your back.
I’m unaware of any author who has such a profound understanding of the personal and social evil of envy in the world. It’s odd because it is hardly written about at all. This is a major reason Rand is so valuable. Her works put a bead on the entire subject and help you prepare for something that you will deal with throughout your entire life. I would say, in fact, that this feature of her work is the most profound and impactful.
3. Moral Courage.
In popular understanding, Rand was a champion of “selfishness.” I’ve always wondered if her deployment of this term was due to her sometimes obtuseness about the subtleties of a language that was not hers by birth. It seems like that really meant a more classical understanding of self-interest: namely that there is no inconsistency between what’s good for the individual and what is good for society.
No doubt that if she heard me say that, she would violently disagree. However, when we look at the behavior of her heroes in the book, each of them makes profound personal sacrifices to stand up for moral principles. Indeed, the ethical obligation to exercise painful degrees of moral courage is a major theme in her writings. Similarly, many of her most grotesque villains do only what is in their short-term self-interest regardless of the impact on others. It’s a bit of an odd feature of her writing that we can get a better picture of her true ethical opinions by the actions of her characters than her own attempt to codify an ethical system in her non-fiction work.
4. Personal example.
I’ve heard it said often that she had great writings but her personal life was a disaster. And so they admire her as an intellectual but not as a human being. It’s hardly news that she was flawed. I’m rather tired of the shock that comes when discovering that. Plus, if we are looking for people who exercise profound moral courage in their lives, she certainly qualifies. She was born in Russia and slated to live under the Bolsheviks. Instead, she plotted her way out with a clever scheme to visit the United States to study film. She defected, penniless. She lived for a time with relatives in Chicago but felt stifled so she took a bus to Hollywood where, not knowing anyone, climbed her way up to become an important script writer. Then she started writing wonderful novels and eventually became a best-selling author and one of the biggest intellectual influencers of the century. That strikes me as a heroic life. People who want to deny her credit for her own achievements are mostly to be ranked among the envious.
One of the most brilliant features of her dystopias is just how realistic they truly are. The total state does not create a world of amazing technology but just the opposite. It is a world of material and moral impoverishment that is always going backwards in time. If you don’t have time for “Atlas Shrugged,” consider her beautiful novelette called “Anthem.” It is short but to the point: the state in this book has banned the light bulb. When I first read that, I thought that was impossible. But here we are today with a just-implemented light bulb ban, not to mention electrical outages, and coming restrictions on meat eating and so on. She understood something others miss about the state: it is ultimately a reactionary institution.
These are good times to read and understand Ayn Rand. No need to valorize every aspect of her work, much less denounce her for inaccuracies, exaggerations, and excesses. Her aggressive atheism in particular strikes me as a pointless diversion—and she would certainly disagree with me in that judgment.
Even given all that, she has so much to offer. Contrary to the usual line that her writings are only compelling for kids in their late teens and early twenties, her contribution is best understood by mature thinkers who can take the good and the brilliant with the mistakes and missteps along the way. She deserves a high place in the canon of mighty literary contributions toward realistically understanding the world around us.