Monday, September 3, 2012

Random Notes, Part I: Ayn Rand and Reason

I have argued several times that good citizenship of a constitutional democracy like our own requires thoughtful engagement with ideas on a wide range of issues and from a wide range of perspectives. A significant criticism frequently leveled at contemporary America is that most people have isolated themselves into enclaves where everyone lives and thinks the same way. As Cass SunsteinBill BishopRobert Putnam, and a host of others have argued, Americans increasingly choose to expose themselves to a narrower and narrower spectrum of opinion and many Americans simply avoid engaging in the realm of political and social ideas. Liberals say this about conservatives; conservatives say this about liberals. To some extent they are both right -- and it speaks to the generally sad state of citizenship in the United States. It may be, as I have hinted before, cause for despair and a sign that our long-lasting republic has begun to degenerate as, the tradition tells us, all republics eventually do.

But those who do open themselves to thoughtful analyses of ideas and events -- legal, political, social, economic, religious -- frequently come across interesting items that deserve a wider audience than they are likely to receive in the compacted world of contemporary discussion. In the next few posts I share some of the things I've read this week that I found provocative.

In my most recent post on "Corruption and Equality" I made a veiled reference to Ayn Rand, who has always commanded a devoted following and who has recently been on the lips of many a conservative policymaker and politician. Rand is hot, not just with Ron Paul and his followers, but with many on the right, including Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan. My reference suggested that American citizens might be better served by finding their intellectual inspiration in the writings of those who founded our constitutional system (and those who inspired them) rather than in the novels of a Russian emigre. Snarky, perhaps, but worth considering. This week I came across a powerful critique of Rand by Canadian philosopher, Nicholas McGinnis. If you are philosophically minded and are interested in wrestling with complicated ideas, McGinnis's analysis of Randian philosophy and economics is quite persuasive. Rand's followers rarely examine the philosophical assumptions upon which her economic conclusions are based. They like the conclusions, and simply assume the argument is strong; or they toss out a few of Rand's seemingly self-evident truths and, skipping blithely past the deductions that might lead from the truths to the economics, assume they've said all they need to say. But the essence of McGinnis's argument is that Rand writes as if she building upon a well-worked out philosophical system, when in reality she is not. For instance, the famous Randian claim that "existence exists," always presented as if it were an indubitable truth, has no particular cash value when an attempt is made to ground economic policy on it. In fact, some would be inclined, I imagine, to say the phrase is silly, meaningless, high-sounding babble -- and they might well be right.

What is most interesting about McGinnis's critique is that it does not rest merely on critics such as Gore Vidal, who said in 1961 that Rand
has great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the "welfare" state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts . . . Ayn Rand's "philosophy" is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic.
Strong words, but easily tossed aside as the ideological claims of a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. McGinnis, however, relies more on a philosophical analysis of Rand's reasoning and, most interestingly, on the developed views of numerous conservative and libertarian writers -- from philosophers to journalists to politicians to economists, from Robert Nozick to William F. Buckley to Whitaker Chambers to Alan Greenspan. McGinnis, in other words, does not remain in some sort of liberal bubble, but ventures out into territory he may not find congenial or comforting. But what he finds there is that Rand has far more devotees than people who are convinced by her arguments. He concludes that Rand's thought doesn't stand up to analysis, whether from the left or the right or from a standpoint of neutral reason (if there is such a thing -- but that is a topic for another occasion).

Take, for instance, the fairly recent rejection of the foundation of Randian economic policy -- the claim that self-interest is a virtue and therefore that the world will be a better place if we simply take the government reins off of selfish behavior -- by a former devotee, Alan Greenspan. Testifying in 2008 before a senate committee investigating the financial crisis, Greenspan admitted:
I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms . . .  Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders' equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.
Pressed by committee chair Henry Waxman for more, Greenspan conceded there was a serious flaw in this most fundamental of Randian arguments: it seems that Rand's views do not, after all, provide a sound basis upon which to build economic policy.

In fact, the flaws in Rand's thought are legion, as McGinnis shows with the help of his conservative sources. Philosopher Robert Nozick, author of the widely read and praised Anarchy, State, and Utopia (which makes a strong, if ultimately unconvincing, philosophical case for libertarianism), typifies the response of thinkers who have taken Rand's arguments seriously. Nozick criticizes Rand for lacking clarity, for simply asserting (without support) a set of debatable premises, for leaping to conclusions without proper argument, and for (in McGinnis's words) "baldly stating controversial theses as if they were self-evident facts." Nozick states that, as much as he would like to set out Rand's argument in deductive form and then examine the premises, "it is not clear (to me) exactly what that argument is." This from an acknowledged master of libertarian and Austrian economic logic.

Writing in 1957 in the National Review, whose editor William F. Buckley had rejected the banal and "dessicated philosophy" of Rand as a violation of the conservative tradition, Whitaker Chambers concluded:
Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. (1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. (2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. 
Chambers worried that blind devotion to the Randian cult was not only anti-conservative, it was dangerous. At the end of the road that starts with treating Rand as some sort of prophetess with the key to political and economic truth, lies Big Brother -- as it does with the form of materialism Rand most hated: Russian Marxism.

I can understand the initial appeal of Rand's novels, with their heroic individualists taking on the world. I have friends who think these novels are classics, though no one I know would go so far as Rand's erstwhile lover and follower, Nathaniel Branden, who once proclaimed
Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived. Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world. Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter of any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral or appropriate to man's life on earth.
Wow. Really? But the oft-heard repetition of Rand's name as if it were a guarantor that there is sound philosophical reason behind policies to unleash selfishness partakes of the same sort of mindlessness. One does not need to be a liberal to bemoan the fact that, increasingly in some circles, selfishness is being touted as if it were the path to human welfare. Thinking conservatives, it seems, find this just as groundless. And both have reason to think it dangerous -- if for no other reason that that the Randian argument is, as McGinnis concludes, simply not there.

1 comment:

  1. Atlas Shrugged Part 2 will be in theaters October 12th, 2012.