Tag Archives | Ayn Rand

Review of Atlas Shrugged II

My wife and I recently saw Atlas Shrugged, Part II. Overall, I thought it was much better than Part I, which I assessed here. The acting was significantly better, and the movie did a better job of conveying the message of Ayn Rand’s book.

There are still some problems in translating a 1950s novel into a modern setting. As I noted in the review of Part I, it is still implausible that railroads play such a big role in the economy. There are some other problems along these lines as well.

Part II also highlights an important tension that is present in the book, but is much more blatant in the movie. On the one hand, as Bryan Caplan explains, Rand emphasizes that misguided populist public opinion supports and is ultimately responsible for the government’s terrible socialistic policies. On the other, Hank Rearden’s (and later John Galt’s) opposition to those policies seems to enjoy broad support, perhaps even from a majority. The movie portrays pro-free market demonstrations that seem to have just as much backing as their left-wing counterparts. When Rearden is put on trial by the government for violating one of their regulatory decrees, they decide to let him off with a slap on the wrist for fear of angering public opinion.

So where does majority sentiment actually lie? If public opinion opposed the government’s interventionist policies, how did those policies become entrenched in the first place? We’re talking interventions far more radical than anything the US government has ever done in real life. And they were apparently adopted through the democratic process rather than a one-party dictatorship established by force (as in most real-life socialist regimes). if the answer is that the public quickly saw the light once they heard Rearden’s brilliant arguments, why didn’t [...]

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Assessing the Atlas Shrugged Movie

On Friday night, I went to see the new Atlas Shrugged movie, which recounts Part I of Ayn Rand’s classic novel. My wife (who first became a libertarian after reading Rand, though she is not a Randian today), expected to either love the movie or hate it. In the end, we both came away with the impression that the film was neither very good nor terrible. On the plus side, it does a fairly good job of conveying Rand’s message, the visuals are often impressive, and the actors playing Rand’s villains are often quite effective. Unfortunately, the actress playing the key role of Dagny Taggart doesn’t seem quite up to the challenge, which is a problem given that she is the main character in the first part of the book. There are also several scenes that flop for various reasons.

The decision to set the movie in the near future (2016) was, in my view, a mistake. Even with a measure of suspension of disbelief, it’s hard to buy into the premise that railroads would be as vital to the US economy in this day and age as they are portrayed in the the movie (the book was, of course, written in the 1950s). The film tries to plug this plot hole by positing that unrest in the Middle East has cut off all oil imports to the United States, thereby grounding most planes and making railroads more important. Unfortunately, trains run on oil too. Any increase in the price of oil would affect them as well. Moreover, even a complete cessation of imports from the Middle East wouldn’t come close to cutting off all oil imports to the US. Countries like Canada, Mexico, Norway, Russia, and Nigeria have lots of oil too. The filmmakers would have been wiser to [...]

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Debating the Virtue of Selfishness

This Friday at 7 PM, I will be debating philosopher Objectivist philosopher William Thomas of the Atlas Society on the question of whether self-interest can be the basis of political morality. In The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand famously argued that it can and should be. Although I respect Rand as the greatest modern popularizer of libertarian ideas, I am skeptical about this aspect of her thought. Thomas, by contrast, endorses it. This issue of is of obvious interest to libertarians and Ayn Rand fans. But I think it is also important to others interested in political theory and the morality of self-interest.

The debate will take place at George Mason Law School, in Hazel Hall Room 120. More detailed information about the debate is available here and here. VC readers are more than welcome to come. If you are a reader and do choose to come, make sure to say hello. [...]

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Conservatism, Libertarianism, Civil Rights, and “Circumstances”

In a National Review post discussing the civil rights laws of the 1960s, Roger Clegg writes that “Conservatism is superior to libertarianism because it is less ideological and more readily acknowledges that circumstances matter.” Whatever the general validity of this claim, Clegg picked a very poor example to illustrate it.

As co-blogger David Bernstein has pointed out, numerous prominent conservatives, including many associated with National Review, actively defended racial segregation throughout the 1950s and 60s. They supported Jim Crow not only on “states’ rights” grounds but also because, as a 1957 National Review editorial put it, whites were “the advanced race” and could deny the franchise to blacks in order to protect “civilization.”

By contrast, as David also notes, most leading libertarian writers of the time – including Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand – were on the other side of this issue. Rand, for example, wrote that “[t]he Southern racists’ claim of ‘states’ rights’ is a contradiction in terms: there can be no such thing as the ‘right’ of some men to violate the rights of others.” She also denounced racism as “the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.”

Many 1960s libertarians can reasonably be criticized for underemphasizing the importance of ending segregation relative to other issues. But their record on these matters was considerably better than that of most conservative intellectuals of the day. Even if you think that libertarians were wrong to be skeptical of restrictions on purely private sector discrimination, the conservatives of the time were no better. And unlike in the case of the conservatives, libertarian opposition to private sector anti-discrimination laws was motivated by general support for a right of free association, whereas most of the conservative opponents were perfectly willing to support Jim Crow laws forbidding blacks from voluntarily [...]

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Debating Ayn Rand’s Philosophy

Cato Unbound has recently completed an interesting debate between several scholars on the strengths and weaknesses of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. All of the contributions are worth reading for those interested in the subject. But I agree most with University of Colorado political philosopher Michael Huemer:

What is the best way to defend freedom intellectually? Is it, as Rand believed, to connect the philosophy of individual rights to a version of ethical egoism, which in turn derives from the metaethical theory presented by Rand in “The Objectivist Ethics”? I don’t think so. Objectivists seem to find that essay completely convincing. But hardly anyone else finds it at all convincing. This is not a trivial observation—one often finds that people who do not accept a whole philosophical system nevertheless find certain parts of it plausible. And one often finds that people who are not ultimately persuaded by an argument nevertheless see some plausibility in it. But neither of these things is true of the argument of “The Objectivist Ethics”—hardly anyone finds that argument even slightly plausible, unless they also buy into virtually all of Ayn Rand’s views…..

There are two major reasons why the best hope for political freedom is not to connect it ideologically with Rand’s ethical and metaethical theories. The first is that those theories are utterly unconvincing to almost everyone…. Connecting the two together serves only to discredit the cause of freedom and individual rights. It plays into the hands of those who say that the only opposition to socialism derives from greed and selfishness.

The second major reason is that ethical egoism does not support the philosophy of individual rights in the first place. Quite the opposite. Take Rasmussen’s statement of the basic individualist premise: “Each individual human being is an end in him‑ or herself …

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Anne Heller’s Ayn Rand Biography

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Jennifer Burns’ important new biography of Ayn Rand. I have now had a chance to read the other recent Rand Biography, Anne Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made.

Heller’s book is very good and gives a thorough account of Rand’s life. On the whole, I found it somewhat less interesting than Burns’ account. Burns is a political historian and focuses primarily on Rand’s political thought and her impact on libertarianism and other pro-free market political forces. By contrast, Heller focuses much more on Rand the person. For example, Burns has extensive discussions of Rand’s conflicts and disagreements with other leading libertarian thinkers of the period, such as Hayek and Friedman. One of these two isn’t even mentioned by Heller, and the other is only noted in passing.

That said, Heller’s book does have a wealth of fascinating material for those readers whose primary interest is in Ayn Rand as such, rather than her connection to broader political or intellectual movements. The overall picture of Rand is not always a flattering one. As in Burns’ book, she comes off as obnoxious and intolerant of opposing views, and often mistreating her friends, family members and supporters. It is telling that Rand ended up breaking ties with nearly all her friends and Objectivist movement allies, often over petty disputes. From both Heller and Burns, I get the impression that Rand did not read widely in the works of other political thinkers, even libertarian ones (Ludwig von Mises excepted). That is a shame, since her own writings could have been improved by greater engagement with the work of others.

At the same time, there is much to admire about Rand as well, including her willingness to challenge the dominant statist conventional wisdom of the [...]

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Was Ayn Rand the Most Influential Russian Immigrant to the United States?

I have previously blogged about the massive impact that Ayn Rand had as the leading modern popularizer of libertarianism and the recent controversy over whether she is an asset or liability for free market advocates today. An interesting question (at least to me) is whether Rand was the most influential Russian immigrant to the United States. To my mind, her only serious competitors for the title are aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky, who designed the first mass-produced helicopter, among other achievements, and novelist Vladimir Nabokov. I exclude cultural figures like composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff, who came to the US late in life, but did most of their important work elsewhere. Like Rand, Nabokov and Sikorsky left Russia in large part because of ideological opposition to the communist regime. Interestingly, Sikorsky was precisely the type of anti-communist inventor and entrepreneur who could have been the hero of an Ayn Rand novel, but for the fact that he was a very religious Orthodox Christian. Nabokov has far more “high culture” cache than Rand and his novels have greater technical merit. But I think it’s clear that Rand has influenced the world views of far more people; she certainly has had many more readers. Even among those who have read Nabokov, I doubt that many have significantly changed their views on any important moral or political issues as a result.

Google founder Sergei Brin is a dark horse candidate. But I think that internet search engine technology was likely to develop in a roughly google-like direction even without Brin’s distinctive contributions.

Are there any other candidates I’m missing – besides Senior Conspirator Eugene Volokh, of course?

UPDATE: Commenters reasonably point out that I omitted some important candidates, such as Irving Berlin, primarily because I had not bothered to check [...]

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Heather Wilhelm Responds to her Critics

Heather Wilhelm has posted a response to critics of her Wall Street Journal column arguing that Ayn Rand is bad for the free market cause. I was one of those critics, even though I have many reservations about Rand myself. Wilhelm’s response concedes that Rand may have had some value for free market advocates, but claims that the emphasis on Rand today makes it harder for libertarians to appeal to the political middle by making the case that free markets benefit all of society:

The main point of the article, which I think is pretty clearly articulated in the last paragraph, is this: For the free market movement to succeed in this day and age, it needs to continually stress the moral case for economic liberty. This is why the political left has been so successful. They have convinced the majority of the population that big government is the only thing in society that truly and effectively “cares”.

Ayn Rand has done a lot of things for the free market movement, and, as I point out in the piece, she has influenced many key people who have made progress in terms of advancing political liberty….

What I’m critiquing, and I state this explicitly, is the current fixation on Rand, which I think is counterproductive. I’m not saying everyone should throw Ayn Rand or her ideas out the window. I’m saying we have to be smarter in how we present free market ideas to the political middle—the people who are ultimately going to determine whether we live in a collectivist society or not. Ayn Rand does a lot of things, but she doesn’t effectively communicate the power of free markets to improve the lives of people–all people, including the poor and disadvantaged–around the world.

Rand inspires many people. Unfortunately,

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Is Ayn Rand Bad for Libertarianism?

In this Wall Street Journal article, Heather Wilhelm argues that Ayn Rand is bad for libertarianism because her personal obnoxiousness, emphasis on the “virtue of selfishness,” and celebration of a small entrepreneurial elite tends to alienate potential adherents. I too dislike some aspects of Rand’s personality and disagree with many parts of her philosophy. Nonetheless, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Rand has done more to popularize libertarian ideas than any other writer of the last century or so – a point I emphasized in my own recent critical assessment of Rand . Literally millions of people have been influenced by her, including the vast majority of the last two generations of libertarian scholars, activists, and intellectuals, many of whom first became libertarian in the first place after reading her books. No other modern libertarian writer has won over so many people, and only a handful of nonlibertarian ones have equalled Rand’s achievements in popularizing an ideology. I am unusual in having come to libertarianism without any significant Randian influence, and despite a mostly neutral to negative reaction to her work. Even if Rand’s negative qualities have alienated a million potential adherents from the free market cause, she has attracted many more.

Brian Doherty and Katherine Mangu-Ward have already picked apart Wilhelm’s piece, and I agree with most of their points. I would add that Wilhelm is somewhat unfair to Rand in this passage:

Rand held some insight on the nature of markets and has sold scads of books, but when it comes to shaping today’s mainstream assumptions, she is a terrible marketer: elitist, cold and laser-focused on the supermen and superwomen of the world.

How are free markets best “sold”? A more compelling approach flips Rand’s philosophy on its head, explaining how everyone, especially society’s neediest,

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Ayn Rand’s Contributions

Following up on Ilya’s post, I though I’d mention a couple of other contributions Rand made.

First, and as is most evident in Atlas Shrugged, Rand turns Marxism on its head.  While Marxists argue that “capitalists” make their profits on the backs of the working class, Rand illustrates that the working class, as such, makes almost no contribution to wealth, but relies on the efforts, risks, sacrifices, and most of all the genius of the entrepreneurial class.  Consider, as a thought experiment, what living standards would be like if every person in the world had an IQ around the median of 103, and otherwise had average talents and ambition.  Does anyone seriously doubt that “workers,” and everyone else, would be a lot poorer than they are today, and indeed would likely be living as poorly as our hunting and  gathering ancestors?

I should add that Rand’s view on this was not original; very similar views are expressed by William Graham Sumner in What Social Classes Owe to One Another.  But Rand has obviously had a much greater long-term impact than did Sumner (unless a researcher discovers that Rand actually came upon her idea via Sumner).

There is, of course, the danger of taking this insight too far.  The fact that “ideas people” are largely responsible for our wealth doesn’t mean that they necessarily have a moral claim on any given fraction of that wealth.  We all, after all, stand on the shoulders of others, and no matter how brilliant and entrepreneurial someone was living in 1st century North America, he was going to be a lot poorer than the average person in 21st century North America.  Not to mention that without a proper legal system, property rights, etc., supported by the public at large, no amount of genius [...]

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Assessing Ayn Rand: “An Utterly Intolerant and Dogmatic Person Who Did a Great Deal of Good”

I was very interested to read historian Jennifer Burns’ important new biography of Ayn Rand in part because Rand and I have a great deal in common. We are both Russian Jews from St. Petersburg, both atheists, and – most important – both of us became libertarians in large part because of our experience with communism. Burns interestingly describes how Rand’s opposition to communism was influenced by the repression suffered by her parents after the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 (for example, her father’s home and business were confiscated, and the family was discriminated against because of their “bourgeois” background). My great-grandfather (who was much poorer than Rand’s father), also had his small business confiscated in 1918, and this was one of a series of incidents that influenced my paternal grandfather’s own lifelong opposition to communism. He and Rand were almost exact contemporaries, born one year apart.

Despite all of the above, I was never much influenced by Rand or impressed by her writings. I became a libertarian in high school primarily as a result of reading Friedman, Hayek, Nozick, and Thomas Sowell – and because being a refugee from communism prevented me from becoming a left-liberal, as would otherwise have been likely. I also read some of Rand’s books at that time. But I wasn’t impressed with her effort to defend free markets based on her theory of the “virtue of selfishness,” or her “Objectivist” philosophy. Many of her ideas seemed poorly developed or superficial. I was also turned off by her intolerance for disagreement and her lack of serious effort to engage with opposing points of view.

I still think these criticisms of Rand are largely accurate. There was, however, one important point that I underrated: Ayn Rand was the greatest popularizer of libertarian ideas of the [...]

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