Today we’re going to dissect Ayn Rand and, god willing, offend everyone on both sides of the aisle doing so.
You might know her: she’s very popular. She’s the author of texts like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. She’s become a strange hero to the American Right, where her anti-altruistic philosophy of endless capital accumulation has been embraced as a moral prerogative.
These people love her. Former Presidential Candidate Rand Paul, for example, is named Rand after Ayn Rand. Former Vice Presidential Candidate and Crossfit Enthusiast Paul Ryan gives out copies of her books to his staff as Christmas Presents. And unnamed member of the Ryan staff was quoted saying, “Oh, so we don’t get presents?”. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas even learned to read so he could better understand Rand’s work.
She’s important because these people are important. And they love her. But people also really hate her. There’s a lot of attacks on Rand’s mode of philosophy, primarily based around her romantic writing style and lack of deference for other philosophers. One also must be aware that the same criticism could be made about male counterparts, such as Slavoj Zizek – it just isn’t, and some of this heightened critical attention may be seen through the lens of critical gender studies, where a woman is criticized for exhibiting qualities societies deem ‘masculine’, such as leadership being dismissed as bossiness. The argument that Rand should defer while male philosophers should not evidences this sort of microaggression. That said, the vast majority of criticism against Rand is not gender-based or sexist.
So, the goal of this piece is to examine what she wrote, instead of how she wrote it. It provides a laughably general overview of her theories and communicates my ultimate disagreement. The goal of this is to provide some information on what her theories actually are, rather than the absurd deification of the political right-wing versus the ad hominem assault of the political left.
Make up your own mind.
Ayn Rand wrote things. The two books people know, as mentioned above, are Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Her non-fiction writing was tendered towards her philosophy of Objectivism.
That is a philosophy largely composed of ethical egoism, laissez-faire capitalism, and metaphysical realism. The thesis of her work is that people are heroic, happiness is their moral purpose, people achieve happiness through productive achievement.
Our notion of which achievement is ‘productive’ is based on our own personal philosophy. This, for Rand, guides life. The closer a philosophy is to being correct, the more successful one’s life will be.
This is as one will accumulate achievements that are objectively productive, and those productive behaviors will be rewarded by a free market economy. This is why every Rand book contains a scene where a character pulls out a blueprint for a railroad and masturbates to completion.
Ironically, this is both fundamentally similar-to and diametrically opposed-to Karl Marx’s position in the Communist Manifesto. Both argued for a system that encourages the aggregation of productive achievement. For Marx, this would be through restraining the wealthy class through a centrally controlled economy and, for Rand, it would be done through empowering them in a laissez-faire system of capitalism.
Like Nietzche, Rand spends significant time in her novels demonstrating an ideal human or what Nietzche called an ‘ubermensch’. This would be John Galt in Atlas Shrugged or Mr. Fountainhead in the The Adventures of Mr. Fountainhead. The ideal human, for Rand, masturbates to railroad imagery while collective productive achievements in accordance with the philosophy of objectivism. In literary terms, these books follow Mary Sue through a hero’s journey.
So, it’s probably helpful to talk about what objectivism is. Like Kierkegaard or, in the alternative, every other philosopher ever, Rand thinks of things in a trichotomy. This is: (1) intrinsic, (2) subjective, and (3) objective.
(1) describes phenomena wholly dependent on factors outside the mind. (2) describes phenomena dependent on the mind. (3) describes the relationship between the subject and the object.
Combined, this is a philosophy of practical ethics. For Rand, the nature of a phenomena is not dependent on a third-party primary mover or, in common terms, a god. This means, like Nietzche, the living being is supreme over concepts of religion, history, tradition, or similar concepts.
Ethics is a code of values, and Rand invites readers to question which code of values is acceptable. There is a ‘good’, which is an object of pursuit one acts to acquire. Productive achievement is an example of a good. This renders all of life a constant process of action. Life is a choice that people make, and any second spent not suiciding oneself is a choice in action.
Values arise from chooses in action. This is because whether a state of affairs is chosen is itself a decision of the value of the state. Aggregate choices give rise to values, with survival as the ultimate value. This as dead people cannot make choices.
Therefore, the rational objectivist will choose life in every instance. Life is the opportunity to make choices, and parties may choose to deal with the consequences of a survival after-the-fact: survival is always a metaphysical necessity. Life necessitates value, and entity-values are determined by the requirements of survival of entities of that kind.
This grounds morality in a hypothetical imperative. When one decides to live, they are valuing their own survival as their ultimate end. Therefore, morality can be understood as the means to ensure long-term survival. Any alternative morality leads to death. Death ends choices, and has no value and, for Rand, should therefore be avoided.
In this system, virtue is the gaining or keeping of a value. Rationality is the fundamental virtue, as the rational person chooses to be reasonable, and a reasonable person will choose to avoid death.
However, this says nothing about how that person should live; just that they should choose to do so. For Rand, that person should choose the goal of happiness. The operative definition of happiness is the result, reward, and concomitant of moral living. Someone lives ‘morally’ when they adhere to a personal philosophy close-to or identical-to objectivism.
Again, the underlying thesis is that happiness occurs through productive achievement, and productive achievement is the creation of virtue, and virtue is the adoption of value, and a value is a choice in action. However, the choice in action must conform to the facts to be adopted as a virtue. These choices should be rational in terms of the subject, object, and intrinsic nature of the item. These are decisions that support the ability of one to survive and make future-decisions. Therefore, one will accumulate happiness over time if they choose long-term survival and if that decision is correct.
Philosophers disagree on what Rand’s ultimate value is. Some say survival others say flourishment. It doesn’t really matter. Regardless of what she believed, in this philosophical system, the moral choice is whichever current decision allows the chooser to make the most future decisions.
In essence, the ultimate value is whether a decision sets you up to manage executives for a railroad company. This is why all Rand books contain a section where John Galt risks his life in pursuit of a greater value. In each instance, the decision to accept risk created an opportunity to grow virtue through enhanced decision-making prerogatives. Atlas Shrugged, for example, ends with John Galt being named President of Everything by making a risky podcast.
Fun fact: Ayn Rand invented podcasts.
The Corporation Example
To quote Andre 3000:
hey, alright, now that may have been a little heady. And, you know, I hate heady-ass posts. But I wrote this shit, so here we go.
So, let’s take a break and think of what this soupy jazz of dribbling word gravy actually means.
Think of it like a corporation, largely because this entire philosophy mimics a corporate structure to such an extent that someone should have shouted plagiarism.
A corporation exists until it is dissolved. The goal of a corporation is to earn profit. If a corporation is insolvent, it dies. This is because profit pleases the shareholders, who allow the corporation to exist.
The chief mind of a corporation is a director. The director is required by laws (such as 118(3) of the Alberta Business Corporations Act) to refrain from transactions that a reasonably diligent person would believe would endanger the solvency of the corporation. So, every decision the director makes will be to maximize profit.
The problem is every decision may be unprofitable. There is risk in every business operation. So, the corporation manages risk through internal policies designed to minimize its effect. The longer a corporation exists, the more profitable a corporation may be. This is because each decision isn’t simply a risk – it is an opportunity to grow capital. Someone else’s risk is the corporation’s gain.
Therefore, the thought is the longer a corporation exists the shrewder it becomes. The continued solvency of a corporation is a sign that it has managed risk effectively, and that is the virtue of risk management. Then these virtues accumulate productive achievements through the successful completion of a project (ex. Apple Railroad), popular usage of an offered service (ex. Apple iTunes Ping), or widescale sale of a good (ex. Apple EarPods). These situations ensure profit, and, for the corporation, profit is happiness, as it is the greatest sign of corporate welfare and solvency. And in Corporate Law, like in Objectivism, this means happiness is the aggregation of decisions made, decisions to-make, and future decision-making capacity to pursue. In both instances, ‘Productive Achievement’ is the central purpose of the actor’s continued existence.
I feel like that made it more confusing. Anyways, moving on.
Emotions and Values
For Rand, both corporations and people, then, would feel emotions in the same way. This is because emotions are estimates over whether a situation furthers or threatens the continued existence of the values of the person. The chief difference is that, in a corporate setting, these ‘emotions’ would be done by an accountant or legal counsel, whereas in real life those people do not have emotions.
There is no real Rand philosophy on ‘feelings’ or whether feelings are different from emotions. For this, it will suffice to say that feelings can either be defined as synonymous with emotions or the precognizance of an incoming emotion.
This leaves us with ‘Emotions’, which concern ‘Values’.
The Objectivist will employ certain values in most instances based on their support of human purposes. These are ‘chief’ virtues, and include rationality, integrity, honesty, justice, independence, and pride. Values are egoistic, and not benevolent. ‘Charity’, for example, is not one of Rand’s chief virtues and is therefore a meaningless discretionary choice. Like pudding!
There are also vices. Vices are second-category behaviors. This means one adopts a primary relationship to other people, as opposed to their own existence. These are behaviors motivated by power, class, or unearned wealth, amongst others. Vice-driven behavior is doomed to fail as the person will either be caught or live in fear of being exposed, with both thoughts tendered towards death. A prime example of a vice is ‘evasiveness’, as the truth may always surface.
As such, the heroic person favors virtue over vice, and thereby acts in their own rational self-interest to maximize their decision-making capability. People may be altruistic and help others, but that has no weight in-itself. Likewise, Rand greatly disliked deontological philosophies (ex. Kant) placing an obligation over self-interest. These were dismissed as mysticism.
In fact, the system logically excludes altruism as a moral choice. The altruistic act diminishes one’s capacity for life and happiness by costing time, money, and granting no decision-making prerogative. The acceptance of altruism is like not moral as the receiver cannot choose what they are receiving, and their vulnerable social position is, for Rand, demonstrative of incorrect moral guidance.
Ergo, people should be selfish. Altruism is seen as a guilt based on residual post-tribal notions of ‘God’ or ‘Charity’. There is no distinction between ‘Altruism’ and ‘Self-Sacrifice’, as neither is in the rational self-interest of the individual. Greed is good.
The preceding is the individual. Now it is time to talk about Rand’s ideal society. This is a group of individuals respecting other’s natural rights, generally defined to include life, liberty, and property.
The economic system is necessarily capitalistic. The thought is actors are rational. They trade value for equal value of a different kind, whether it be economic, material, or spiritual. It is informed by something Rand called the ‘trader principle’, which is that in civil society we are independent beings who shall act to ensure our proper survival.
Civil Rights, then, describe the logical transition from principles of individual action to principles of one’s relationship with the state. These set limits on state action to subordinate civil society to individual choices in action. In such a system, we do not have civil rights if they are not needed for our survival and happiness.
Natural Rights, alternatively, are basic actions any individual may do. These include the decision whether to live, how to live, and private property rights. These are negative liberties that do not ensure an outcome. I won’t go over each, as the Natural Rights are, more or less, common words used commonly without insight or innovation. I do note that Rand does not justify the inclusion of Government-protected ‘Private Property’ as a natural right, despite it having little in common with life or liberty.
This means that the only compatible system with this Philosophy is capitalism. This is because state regulation creates the opportunity for uneven enforcement. The regulatory system encourages one to trade favors to get an expedited result. This creates a system that economically privileges those with favors to trade – they get more results faster.
Naturally, this would lead into an oligopoly of compromised leaders, where force is used to maintain social relationship by maintaining current regulations to ensure the transaction of favors. This produces massive inefficiencies, as time is required to transact a favor, and expediting a result delays another for no practical reason.
Rand’s solution was laissez-faire capitalism. Capitalism, for Rand, will erode this dynamic by reducing the opportunity to trade favors in a regulatory context. The invisible hand of the capitalist system rewards money through effort, and ‘Effort’ as the only condition-precedent creates an equality of opportunity. Valid civil laws, for Rand, are ones that protect equality of opportunity and prevent oligopolies.
In this field, the government is an institution with the exclusive power to enforce rules of social conduct. To do so, the proper government places the retaliatory use of physical control under some sort of objective standard. This is called a ‘law’.
For Rand, this government is minimal. It should protect natural rights of life, liberty, and capital gains/private property. The function of such a body would be to protect civil society from crime, enforce contracts, national defense, or retaliate against the usage of force. In other words, for Rand, the ideal government is a Mitt Romney Fever Dream (trademark pending).
This system is not anarchic, as it contains a territorial monopoly on the law and the usage of force. In an anarchic system, these things would not exist or would be voluntary. It, therefore, requires some sort of leader. It goes to follow that the rational person would want to lead this institution, as they can use the monopoly of force to ensure their own survival.
For Rand and Ted Bundy, these are notions of general applicability. In emotional relationships, for example, ‘love’ is the payment for pleasure derived from another’s virtue. In aesthetics, ‘Art’ would be the stylized recreation of reality, filtered through the perspective of another’s metaphysical value judgements. Ergo, for Rand, the greatest movie of all time is Shakespeare in Love starring Gwenyth Paltrow.
The Problem of Intellectual Property
This system can never work for many, many reasons. Here’s one: it cannot account for intellectual property (“IP”). IP describes intangible property with commercial value. The class includes trademarks, copyright, patents, publicity rights, and others. The property is an abstract product of human creation, manifested in some publicly defended right (ex. copyrights).
IP is independent from real property. If one receives a letter, they own that letter as personal property. The sender, however, retains intellectual property rights in the literary contents of the letter. For example, if Arianna Grande were to mail Steve Bannon a copy of Ulysses, Grande would retain copyrights over Ulysses, even if Bannon now owns the book.
The problem of intellectual property is that this creates a dueling set of property rights. Bannon owns the letter as personal property, but Bannon’s liberty to redistribute and publish the letter is limited by Joyce’s copyright. This tension is created by Rand’s choice of liberty and property as fundamental virtues. This is not a good combination: the constitution of the United States does the same, and that country has left the world an apocalyptic hellscape of meme presidents and white guys talking about synergy.
Strong private property reduces available liberty. This is because, with reference to the works of Isaiah Berlin, people have positive and negative liberties. Oversimplified these are ‘Freedom Froms’ and ‘Freedom Tos’.
Private property rights are a freedom from private intrusion. Liberty is a freedom to order one’s own affairs. The two conflict if and when, in this example, a tryhard like Steve Bannon wants to republish Ulysses as his own work. This creates three possible situations:
- Bannon ignores copyright and publishes Ulysses,
- Bannon does not publish Ulysses,
- Bannon pays Arianna Grande (the rightsholder) a royalty fee and gives proper credit to the author, in order to publish Ulysses.
Rand’s theories prohibit 1 or 2. This is because, for Rand, a person is entitled to benefit from their productive achievement, but not able to legitimately enforce an injunction of another’s productive achievement. This tension, for any resolution, therefore, requires one to pay a fee to the other, and so both achievements receive a benefit.
However, on a macroeconomic scale, this creates a class of past-achievers that benefit from the current achievements of others. This accumulates significant wealth without any actual action on behalf of the past-achiever. This starts a problem as wealth, in this system, is supposed to be representative of the value of the achievements of the achiever, rather than royalty payments from a third-party.
Over time, wealth becomes distorted. The past-achiever is able to transact their intellectual property rights in accordance with principles of liberty and private property. So, eventually, the achievement is sold to a corporation or delivered to a descendant via succession. Now, this person, whether legal or real, has not achieved anything at all. All they have done is received a patent from their father. Nonetheless, this person earns royalties from current achievers for the usage of their ancestor’s past achievements. A modern example of this dynamic is Disney.
This deepens the distorting effect of wealth. Eventually, the intellectual property will be in the hands of someone or something that has no causal relationship with the original process that created the property. The property may have been an engineering technique made by engineers for engineers, with the ownership now in the hands of a white Canadian with an irrelevant baccalaureate in Hispanic studies. Nonetheless, this system elevates this unearned hipster to a place of great wealth, with any money they receive deducted from the benefit of creators.
This economically removes incentive for creation and removes the purpose of wealth in the Rand system. Logically, the hipster can now use their patents to finance the procurement of other patents. They will do so, as Rand’s system promotes passive income streams – this is because these streams do not require physical movement, and physical movement increases the chance of death. The logical end of this is for the hipster to acquire creators before they can create, and thereby pre-acquire the intellectual property in order to charge future royalties. This is called ‘Venture Capitalism’ and is entirely ubiquitous today.
Over greater time, this leads to a statistical drift in the wealthy class from ‘Creators’ to ‘Owners’. The Owners will be people who do not create, but brand everything with their name in order to demonstrate a pre-emptive and vigorous defense of their copyright. Examples of this are ‘Trump University’, ‘Trump Steaks’, ‘Trump Tower’, or ‘Donald Trump Jr.’.
As these people do not create, they do not need to know how to accomplish real things. Their prerogative is the enforcement of intangible rights in whichever legal system the hipster is in. To accomplish this goal, the hipster will hire or become a lawyer and an accountant. All they really need to do is:
- Ensure they have money,
- Ensure they are receiving money.
So, the lawyers send rude letters while the accountants evade taxes. The money flows and the operations of the company are minimal and restrained. The company grows exponentially due to extremely low overheads. No one is sure what they do, but suddenly the brand is everywhere.
And eventually, this creates an oligopoly of rich corporations and their beneficiaries. Any creator must be employed by them or pay the appropriate royalties.
Either way, creation itself is stifled. People undertake to do less as they are prohibited by-law from receiving more. This craters efficiency on a macroeconomic level. The effect of this, in a corporate setting, is periodic and regular insolvency and bankruptcy. This is because the money-received will be less than the money-expected by the Owner, as that expectation is based on outdated notions of an employee’s beneficial interest in their own productivity.
Things get worse. As stated, Rand’s government has a monopoly on force. The ultimate prerogative of the rational person is survival, and a third-party monopoly renders that survival necessarily uncertain.
The rational Randian, then, will run for President. In the interim, they will participate in public life to ensure positive relationships with that monopoly of force (“Military”). Therefore, in a Democracy, the Randian will always attempt to increase military spending. These are people like Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney, with the former specifically citing Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as his favorite book.
It gets even worse. Rand’s philosophy is ultimately a philosophy of death-paranoia. The Randian is obliged to, if rational, choose their life in every instance. After becoming President, the rational Randian will thereby user their new monopoly of force to choose to protect that life. This includes any activity that may inspire the removal of the Randian President, as the Randian President cannot will to-lose their monopoly of power due to its threat to their survival. Therefore, the Randian president will squash dissent, silence political opponents, and use widespread surveillance to keep tabs on ongoing issues.
If this sounds familiar, it is because it is familiar. This is where we are as a society today. Ayn Rand is the only philosopher your politicians read, and they do what she says. Hence our society of constant economic crises, depression, inefficiency, warrantless surveillance, and political tribalism.
It is because, simply, this theory does not work. Its cardinal values conflict and distort any beneficial effect Rand hoped these words could have. Instead, in application it becomes the propagation of a paranoid death cult attempting to take control of the military industrial complex so they can tweet mean things about their political opponents.
In application, it creates Trump. And, at the end of the day, Donald Trump is nothing more than overweight hispter with small hands. This is a man whose greatest accomplishment prior to becoming President was evading rape charges for the sexual assault of his ex-wife, Ivana.
If You Nonetheless Like Ayn Rand
First, if you like Ayn Rand, you’re probably not still reading this. But if you do, please be aware that other philosophers wrote other things. Rand was influenced by other people and, if you like her, you may enjoy those other people.
Specifically, I’d say any Rand acolyte should read Thus Spake Zarathrustra by Friedrich Nietzche, Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle, and Demons by Dostoyevsky. The final book, due to the similarly romantic writing style, is probably the closest experience to Atlas Shrugged.
If you agree with my position, then you aren’t a Randian. Read Hegel. Read all the fucking Hegel. If you haven’t read Hegel, fuck off and read Hegel.