I have long believed that the measure of Objectivism’s penetration into the American culture would be evidenced by the level and virulence of the attacks against it. Judging by not just the hostility but the growing interest in general, both pro and con, Objectivism may be approaching a key turning point. It is apparently emerging into the intellectual “mainstream” of American culture.
As evidence, I point to two new books: Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns, and Ayn Rand and the World She Made, by Anne C. Heller. Before I proceed, let me disclose that I have not read either of these books. While they have been portrayed as critical of Ayn Rand, I will reserve judgement until and unless I do read them. I will, however, note that Jennifer Burns appeared on The Daily Show in an interview with John Stewart. Objectivist and philosopher Dr. Diana Hsieh reports that Rand’s ideas were treated relatively fairly. Not only Ms. Burns, but the host Mr. Stewart “took Ayn Rand seriously…, knew something about her ideas, and he did not treat her as an object of ridicule” (which has been the classic tactic the philosophical establishment has traditionally used to avoid the necessity of judging Objectivism).
I will also observe that the two books are apparently scholarly enough to be the subject of a symposium at the libertarian Cato Institute. The focus of this post will not be on those two books per se, but on an illuminating and interesting review in the Left-oriented The New Republic by Jonathan Chait. Cleverly entitled "Wealthcare", this piece is an attempt to pass off the notion that Ayn Rand's ideas are simultaneously a heavy influence in American politics ... and a failure ... without really analyzing her actual ideas.
What grabs me as I read through the pages of Chait’s blistering polemic is the urge to demand an answer to the question, “Where’s the Beef?” The entire article is one long journey down a side road that bypasses any actual critique of Objectivism. We are treated to the fallacy of ad hominem, misrepresentations, evasions, distortions, contradictions, guilt-by-association, and a healthy dose of straw man attacks.
Now, an honest critique of Objectivism is certainly a valid undertaking, and would be most welcome. But it is just that – honesty – that is a prerequisite of any valid critique. One must first show that he understands the subject, explain it in its essentials, then proceed to demonstrate where and how one believes it is wrong. This article does no such thing. I couldn’t find a single instance of an intellectually valid attempt to discredit Objectivism (which is Chait’s obvious intention).
Chait employs a heavy dose of straw-man argumentation. He parades out a long list of assorted conservatives, Religious Rightists, republicans, and libertarians who cherry-pick isolated, out of context aspects of Rand’s philosophy for their own purposes, often misrepresenting her position. Interestingly, the aforementioned interview reveals acknowledgement of this phenomenon by host Stewart and by implication author Burns. Dr. Hsieh writes: “Stewart was seriously interested in the right's appropriation of Ayn Rand when convenient, then ignoring other ideas like her atheism. (I'm glad he pointed that out!)” (Emphasis added. I’m relying on Mrs. Hsieh’s observations here, since I have not yet viewed the clip.) Chait makes no such disclaimer. Instead, he irresponsibly attacks the positions of the alleged representatives of the Right as a proxy for Objectivist essentials, claiming that Rand’s “influence” on these individuals is all that is needed to disprove Rand’s actual ideas.
For example, Chait (using this straw man technique) ascribes to Rand such falsehoods as “the premise that wealth represents a sign of personal virtue” and “poverty the lack thereof.” (A lot of time is spent on this straw man.), that “hard work” is the primary essence of success, and that she is a champion of the rich. The central theme of Atlas Shrugged (AS), the role of reason in man’s existence, doesn’t warrant any of his attention. (AS is allegedly about “the rich going on strike”).
In this regard, let me point out a glaring contradiction here. “In essence”, Chait writes, “Rand advocated an inverted Marxism. In the Marxist analysis, workers produce all value, and capitalists merely leech off their labor. Rand posited the opposite.” Marx perpetrated (or at least popularized) the fallacy of the choice between two systems of exploitation – the rich capitalists over the workers (capitalism), or the workers over the rich capitalists (socialism). Thus, capitalism equates to a government that favors the rich, and socialism to one that favors the workers. It is a false choice between two forms of statism, and leaves actual capitalism – a social system based upon individual rights and a government that protects those rights equally and at all times, under the principle of the separation of state and economics – out of the equation altogether. This Marxian view is widely accepted today, not only by the Left but even to a large extent by the Right.
It is this Marxian view that Chait exploits to evade Rand’s actual ideas.
Rand didn’t posit the view that “[capitalists] produce all value, and [workers] merely leech off their labor.” Her view, evidenced in her description of the pyramid of ability, is that the human mind is the primary source of economic value, with the originator and discoverer of new knowledge contributing the most to the productive process, while all others benefit to the extend that they make the effort to acquire the knowledge and skills discovered by others and apply it to their own labor. All productive participants – capitalists, businessmen, entrepreneurs, scientists, inventors, workers, investors, artists – contribute value to the productive process in general proportion to the intellectual energy they expend (Financial reward does not necessarily correlate to intellectual labor, but rather to the value of one’s work product as determined by those who choose to buy it through free and voluntary trade, i.e., the market.). Physical labor, as such, contributes very little value. The vast majority of people in a capitalist social system, who are not originators, nevertheless gain the bonus of having access to a vast store of accumulated knowledge … knowledge made available by the originator higher up on the pyramid of ability. This does not mean, however, that the “average” man is a leech; and this is a point that Rand takes pains to make. To be productive and self-sustaining, a person must still make the effort to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to earn his living. He is not a leech, so long as he does not demand the unearned and gives his honest best to his occupation. The man of limited ability (on the lower rungs of the pyramid of ability) who lives in this fashion is portrayed by Rand – both in her fiction and non-fiction – as equally virtuous to the heroes in AS.
Rand advocated capitalism precisely because it leaves people … all people … free to advance economically as far as their own efforts, ability, and ambition will carry them with no one leeching off of or preying on anyone. Indeed, anyone who actually read Atlas Shrugged would know that many of the primary villains in the novel are rich leeches and exploiters who exist by government favor and political pull, while conscientious workers of limited ability are portrayed virtuously. The point of the novel is that the productive rich … the greatest innovator, entrepreneur, businessman, and industrialist … should simply be left free from government controls and redistributive taxation and that all people at any level of ability have a vested self-interest in keeping it that way.
But that aside, it is true that Rand’s view of wealth production is the opposite of Marx. Marx promulgated the premise of the “labor value of wealth” – that physical labor is the source of all productive achievement (thus, his foolish focus on the “workers” as the exploited). Rand believed that man’s mind, his reason, is the source of economic value and that labor as such adds very little (a self-evident fact, in my view). It is this premise, the intellectual value of wealth, that she set out to prove in AS.
Yet, Chait sloppily contradicts himself by ascribing to Rand the view that “hard work” is directly correlated to wealth. Clearly, this is the Marxist view, which Chait earlier claims – correctly (“Rand posited the opposite”) - that Rand rejected.
Chait’s repeated references to Objectivism as a “cult” are a dead giveaway of his ignorance and/or dishonesty. “[Objectivism] tried to make its people live by the dictates of a totalizing ideology that failed to honor the realities of human existence.”
Considering the sweeping nature of that statement, one would expect at least some idea of what those “realities” are that Rand’s philosophy fails to “honor”. Since Objectivism teaches that one must accept the primacy of existence (an objective reality independent of one’s consciousness), focus his mind on the facts of reality (choose to be conscious), think and act on his own independent judgement based upon his own observation of those facts (reason and logic), organize his life based upon his own long-term best interest (rational egoism or virtue ethics), and respect the rights of others by renouncing the use of physical force in his relationships with them (the trader principle), one can only guess at what “realities of human existence” he believes Objectivism ignores.
But regardless of the actions of any of Objectivism’s alleged practitioners, a philosophy of reason that rejects faith logically cannot become a cult. Of course, any philosophy can be treated as a cult or dogma. This undoubtedly applies to many “followers” of Objectivism. Ayn Rand addresses this point in The Art of Nonfiction, pages 29-30:
“The purpose of philosophy is to guide a man in the course of his life…
“Philosophy does not tell you concretely what to feel or think; it tells you what is true or false - the right principles by which to judge, for example, a work of art, a government policy, [or] a personal relationship. Philosophy provides you with a criterion – but cannot apply it for you (my emphasis). In judging anything or anyone, you must decide whether it or he is good or bad.
“Philosophy cannot give you a set of dogmas to be applied automatically. Religion does that – and unsuccessfully. The dogmatic Objectivist desperately tries to reduce principles to concrete rules that can be applied automatically, like a ritual, so as to bypass the responsibility of thinking and of moral analysis.
They are ‘Objectivist’ ritualists. They want Objectivism to give them what a religion promises, namely, ten or a thousand commandments, which they can apply without having to think about or judge anything.”
“It” is first and foremost a set of principles to guide the life of the individual man in his own endeavors and in his relationships with others, based upon his nature as a rational being. “It” cannot “make” anyone do anything. To the extent that a person lives by Objectivist principles, is the extent to which that person lives by his own judgement according to his own assessment of the facts and “the realities of human existence”.
Due to its essentials, in fact, Objectivism is its own protection against any kind of dogmatism. Anyone who accepts any aspect of Objectivism on faith, or who searches for an “Objectivist position” on concrete issues, cannot claim to be practicing Objectivism. And anyone who claims that Objectivism is a cult is refuting his own words by demonstrating his ignorance of Objectivism.
The cult-like behavior of psuedo-Objectvists notwithstanding, Rand rejected as invalid one’s attempt to accept any philosophical principles or positions on the issues on faith – including her own. The charge that Objectivism is a cult is nothing more than another straw man intended to avoid the necessity of judgement. The author doesn’t know, or want to know, or honestly acknowledge Objectivism. Chait’s analysis can use a good dose of objectivity.
The fallacy of ad hominem - the practice of attacking the person and his personal failings, real or imagined – as a proxy for his actual ideas is on display here. I have no intention of delving into this portion of the article, which Chait deals with rather extensively, because it is irrelevant to Objectivism. Ideas stand separately from any person, including the originator or discoverer of those ideas, and should be independently evaluated on the merits. Rand herself understood this, rejecting the term “Randism” in favor of Objectivism, which is a comprehensive view of life and of existence drawn from an intense study of the metaphysical facts of man’s nature and his relationship to the universe. In short, Objectivism is a discovery … or rather a series of discoveries … not a set of floating abstractions (ideas disconnected from reality). As such, Rand’s philosophy must be critiqued by reference to the objective facts of reality. Objectivism can not be refuted by ad hominem (no ideas can). Objectivism is Rand's monumental achievement, but it is not about Ayn Rand.
Examining a person’s personal life in a biography is perfectly valid, of course, including the evolution of that person’s thought (which, apparently, is what Anne C. Heller attempts to do in her aforementioned book). But that cannot substitute for a critique of that person’s officially recognized philosophy.
There is the attempt to discredit Objectivism by the use of such descriptions as “apocalyptic thinking”, “hysteria”, and “expressions of terror” to describe “Randian thought”. But again, one finds no attempt to refute her actual meaning. Rand does have a flare for the dramatic, but that just plays to her strengths. Chait doesn’t actually refute any of this “hysteria”. Of course, the Left is so accustomed to the Postmodern practice of using words as a means to subvert communication and understanding that it can’t handle the clear and concise oratory of a philosopher who treats words as they are meant to be used … as abstract concepts that describe reality. Put another way, Rand tells it like it is, and thus invites anyone to tell us why it isn’t like she says it is. This petrifies the Left, which fears intellectual clarity above all else.
Even where an idea is accurately presented, such as the reference to Rand’s “black and white ethics”, there is no analysis of its meaning according to Objectivism. Instead, the reader is left hanging with the impression that Rand simply endorses the conventional definition of selfishness via the implied equation of her ethical system to Friedrich Nietzsche’s predatory individualism. It’s true that the early Rand was influenced by Nietzsche, and that she admired some of his work. But she ultimately rejected his brand of egoism:
“Nietzsche’s rebellion against altruism consisted of replacing the sacrifice of oneself to others by the sacrifice of others to oneself. He proclaimed that the ideal man is moved, not by reason, but by his ‘blood,’ by his innate instincts, feelings and will to power—that he is predestined by birth to rule others and sacrifice them to himself, while they are predestined by birth to be his victims and slaves—that reason, logic, principles are futile and debilitating, that morality is useless, that the ‘superman’ is ‘beyond good and evil,’ that he is a ‘beast of prey’ whose ultimate standard is nothing but his own whim.”
Chait doesn’t know, or want to acknowledge, the true nature of Ayn Rand’s ethical system. And he certainly doesn’t want the reader to learn. She actually has a very strong and comprehensive ethical system. But Ayn Rand’s morality is without question the hardest “sell” for Objectivists, and also the most misunderstood essential. For these reasons, and especially in view of Chait’s misrepresentations, this subject deserves to be explored a little further.
Chait ignores the central ethical element of AS embodied in the oath taken by the novel’s heroes:
“I swear - by my life and my love of it – that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
Considering the amount of time Chait spends on Atlas Shrugged, this cannot be an accident. A mere cursory bit research effort will reveal the equation of Rand to Nietzsche for the hatchet job that it is. Wilhelm Windelband describes Nietzschean egoism:
“The strongest impulse of man is the will to power… The will for power knows no bonds which prescribe what is “permitted”; for it, everything is good which springs from power and increases power; everything is bad which springs from weakness and weakens power…
“[Nietzsche] sets up the ideal of the over-man in contrast with the ordinary, everyday man of the common heard. Will for power is the will for mastery, and the most important mastery is that of man over man…
“All the brutality of trampling down those who may be in the way, all the unfettering of the primitive beast in human nature, appear here as the right and duty of the strong.” (A History of Philosophy, pages 678-79)
Leonard Peikoff describes the Objectivist concept of egoism as follows:
“The principle embodied in [the oath quoted above] is that human sacrifice is evil no matter who its beneficiary is… Man – every man – is an end in himself.
“If a person rejects this principle, it makes little difference which of its negations he adopts – whether he says “sacrifice yourself to others” (the ethics of altruism) or “sacrifice others to yourself” (the subjectivist [including Nietzschean] version of egoism). In either case, he holds that human existence requires martyrs; that some men are mere means to the ends of others… It is nothing but a haggling over victims by two camps who share the same principle.
“Objectivism does not share it. We hold that man’s life is incompatible with sacrifice – with sacrifice as such, of anybody to anybody. As Ayn Rand states the point in The Fountainhead, the rational man rejects masochism and sadism, submission and domination, the making of sacrifices and the collecting of them. What he upholds and creates is a self-sufficient ego.” (Objectivism, the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pages 235-36. An understanding of the Objectivist definitions of the concepts of values and sacrifice would be helpful here.)
The diametrically opposed concepts of egoism between Nietzsche and Rand is clear, and clearly evaded by Chait. (For a definitive account of the Objectivist ethics, I refer you to The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and the non-fiction works of Ayn Rand, Tara Smith, and Craig Biddle.) She considered him to be “…philosophically a mystic and an irrationalist”. Rand’s ethics is, of course, “black and white”. Isn’t that the purpose of morality – to lay down a code of firm values or principles by which to judge what is good or bad for your life, and then to strive to adhere to the good? What good are gray ethics? Moral relativism, such as the social version of the Left, is in actuality no ethics at all.
Similarly, Rand’s concept of the “pyramid of ability” features an accurate quote, and then falsely equates Rand’s portrayal of the top of the pyramid with Nietzsche’s concept of the supermen’s domination and subjugation of the inferior masses. (See my previous comments in this post.)
There is a complete misreading of a disaster scene in AS, which misses the important lesson of not only the catastrophe but of the events leading up to it – that ideas have consequences and that no one can (nor should) ultimately escape responsibility for his own irrational intellectual premises and actions:
“Burns notes some of the horrifying implications of Atlas Shrugged. 'In one scene,' she reports, ‘[Rand] describes in careful detail the characteristics of passengers doomed to perish in a violent railroad clash, making it clear their deaths are warranted by their ideological errors.’ ”
What’s clear is not that the passengers’ deaths are warranted, but that the passengers are not blameless, because they promoted the kinds of human actions that culminated in the disaster. This is a huge distinction. The Postmodern Left is wedded to the deterministic belief that people are conditioned by their surroundings, meaning that the ideas they hold are beyond their control and thus they should not be held accountable. Rand rejects this view, believing that every person faces the basic choice, to think or not, and that this choice is ultimately his and his alone to freely make regardless of any “conditioning”. A good analogy would be the case of the drunken driving parent and his child killed in a car wreck. Are their deaths warranted by that parent’s belief that he can drive while intoxicated? That’s not the point. The point is, is that parent responsible? Clearly, the answer is yes. Chait misses the lesson implicit in that AS scene, and simply wants to shoot the messenger. Rand wrote “… although the political aspects of Atlas Shrugged are not its central theme nor its main purpose, my attitude toward these aspects – during the years of writing the novel – was contained in a brief rule I had set for myself: ‘The purpose of this book is to prevent itself from becoming prophetic.’ ” (Objectivist Forum, June, 1980, Emphasis added.) Chait (deliberately?) and apparently Ms. Burns miss the lesson surrounding that scene, wishing the reader to simplistically believe “the horrifying implications” that Rand believed that people deserve to die for “their ideological errors”… rather than that it is Rand's impassioned call through the medium of Romantic fiction to correct those errors.
Chait’s rude slap at John Allison is a revealing bit of window dressing in which Chait’s cloak of moral righteousness slips momentarily. As chairman and CEO, Allison guided BB&T through the financial crisis, keeping the bank giant out of the sub-prime mortgage business and thus allowing it to emerge as one of the strongest financial companies in the country – by adhering his company to the philosophical principles of Objectivism (see my post of 10/21/09). More tellingly, Chait exposes himself as a poster child for the real motives of the collectivist Left – a hatred and disdain for the successful achievers, the very achievers whose products are considered so valuable that they must be smothered by government controls and confiscatory taxation. Ayn Rand identified this mindset as “Hatred of the Good for Being the Good”.
There is much more to be said regarding Chait’s fallacial arguments. There is, for example, his utterly false statement that “Objectivism was premised on the absolute centrality of logic to all human endeavors. Emotion and taste had no place” (as if Rand was the creator of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock!). And then there is Chait’s reference to Rand’s “two-dimensional characters”, a falsehood and a slap at Rand as a Romantic novelist (or, the portrayal of “the hero … as an abstraction of man’s best and highest potentiality, applicable to and achievable by all men, in various degrees, according to their individual choices”. But I’ll leave it off here, for now. The important point to take from this article and the books is that Objectivism is being increasingly taken seriously - a major plus for Americans and America’s future if the interest does not abate.
Through all of the bluster and smoke that passes for objective analysis, one can see the clear intent of Mr. Chait’s phony polemic – his wish that “Ultimately the Objectivist movement failed…” The purpose of his construction and destruction of what amounts to a huge multi-faceted straw man is a desperate attempt to defend the welfare state against a new and rising threat – a moral defense of capitalism. He writes:
“[W]e can see the outlines of a coherent view of society. It expresses its opposition to redistribution not in practical terms--that taking from the rich harms the economy--but in moral absolutes, that taking from the rich is wrong. It likewise glorifies selfishness as a virtue. It denies any basis, other than raw force, for using government to reduce economic inequality. It holds people completely responsible for their own success or failure, and thus concludes that when government helps the disadvantaged, it consequently punishes virtue and rewards sloth.” (Emphasis added.)
From Barack Obama to Michael Moore, the Left is increasingly relying explicitly and openly on socialism’s ethical base, altruism, to advance its cause. With economics, logic, and history going against them, the Postmodern collectivists must be getting nervous that their last pillar of strength, the altruist card, is beginning to crumble. This is the clear message that breaks through the entire piece.
It’s entirely likely that Chait is exaggerating Ayn Rand’s influence on the American Right. The Republican Party is still dominated by the Religious Right, which adheres to the same altruist ethics as the Left. Still, one thing is becoming increasingly clear. The intellectual battle between capitalism and socialism … between individualism and collectivism … is now moving onto the “final frontier” – the moral battleground. This is the frontier upon which America’s, and civilization’s, future will be determined. It is the battleground occupied by the big philosophical guns of Objectivism.
Jonathon Chait and other more astute members of the collectivist Left are, I’m sure, well aware of this. But ideas cannot be defeated on the intellectual battlefield until and unless they are actually engaged, openly and honestly. Mr. Chait fails miserably in that regard.
On a final note, I want to reiterate very strongly that I have not read the two books by Ms. Burns and Ms. Heller. This essay should not be taken as a review of them, but as a critique of Jonathon Chait’s review at The New Republic. For an Objectivist perspective on Jennifer Burns’ book, see Ari Armstrong's introductory review, and a review of the entire book at Fun With Gravity.