Ayn Rand, Pro and Con (and Pro)

Ayn Rand, the ‘radical for capitalism’ best known for her novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, was born on this day in St Petersbury (Russia), 1905.

Her novels, with their emphasis on self-actualisation, character and principle, bring millions of (mostly young) people into to the free-society, free-economy movement. As people say, “It usually begins with Ayn Rand.”

Her ideas in morality and politics are hugely innovative, radically challenging the traditional doctrine of altruism and instead defending egoism. When we correctly understand the world and how it woks, she argues, we can understand and know what actions—moral and political—are right, and what actions are wrong. What was consonant with the world, she concluded, were life, rights and freedom. The only moral social system was laissez-faire capitalism, because it was the only one not based on force and the only one to support these values.

Her view on how we can actually get to know the world and its working was a common sense one. There is a real, objective world; we are aware of it; and the things in that reality each have a specific nature or identity. By using our minds, we can work out what that is, and how to behave in ways that are at one with it.

Many people, however, see Rand’s philosophy not as common sense but as crude—not understanding the skepticism of David Hume or F A Hayek. She caricatures them as denying existence, and building a world on a whim. But skeptics do not deny existence: they say only that we have no direct access to it, and can only guess how it works. We still act in a principled way, but on the basis of our theories, not with irrefutable knowledge. And tomorrow, the universe might throw up some new fact that makes our theories no longer tenable.

Critics also question whether Rand can legitimately move from what is to what ought to be. Her criterion is that we should do what promotes life. But whose life? Rand focuses on the individual, but humans are social creatures, and the survival of larger groups (indeed the whole species) is important too. That is why we have altruism built into us: don’t knock it.

Also, say critics, most moral choices are not about life or death. We cannot know how our decision to hand in a lost wallet without taking any of the money out of it will affect anyone’s survival. We cannot reason it out. But then, as Hayek says, the spontaneous orders of society often have more wisdom than our limited minds could ever possess. 

In politics too, critics can use Rand’s standard of survival to deny her radical defence of individual freedom and capitalism. Should we not intervene to save people from the harm they do themselves through smoking, alcohol, drugs, guns or even fizzy drinks? And, on that same standard, should we not stop the sale of these products?

Despite such criticisms, Rand still inspires millions, and makes people think. She rightly observes that many of the problems in human affairs today is down to a lack of philosophy—a lazy unwillingness to engage the brain and think things through. That is why people do not understand that the state must be limited and rights protected, and why we need moral, political  and economic freedom. And businesspeople lack this understanding just as much as politicians and the general public—which is the origin of the crony capitalism (or as I prefer to call it, crony statism) that grips too much of the world today.

With focus and self-esteem, you can change the world, Rand tells us. But that requires thought, moral qualities and character. It means not craving security over freedom, and not trading your freedom or your dignity; defending your achievements and your right to what you create; not demanding favours or sacrifices; and respecting others who do the same. It is a very attractive prescription; and even a small dose of it would indeed go a long way toward making the world better.