Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Ayn Rand revival: economics, sex, and atheisim for dummies

I quoted a Susan Jacoby column a couple of posts ago, but I have to recommend this one, too. The title is The Ayn Rand revival: economics, sex, and atheism for dummies - how could that not catch your attention? - and it begins like this:
At 15, I read Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, the turgid romantic tale of a misunderstood genius-architect and his worshipful consort. They stand against a collectivist world determined to destroy the extraordinary individual and his equally extraordinary soul mate. Then I followed up with the even more turgid 1200-page Atlas Shrugged , which also involves misunderstood geniuses, collectivism and a sexy heroine fit for a superman. I fell in love with Rand the individualist and her atheism was a bonus.

What makes Rand the perfect philosopher-queen for a 15-year-old is that every adolescent considers herself a misunderstood genius hounded by that intimate collective, the family (which Rand considered the archetypal individual-destroying institution). So it says a good deal about the intellectual and emotional immaturity of the far right that Rand, who never really went away because there is an endless supply of teenagers responsive to her exaltation of selfishness as truth, is enjoying a huge revival in support of the Government-Is-The-Root-Of-All-Evil narrative.

I missed these books when I was 15 - I was reading Aldous Huxley and George Orwell - and it's probably a good thing. At least, the people these days who remain fans of Ayn Rand seem to make no sense at all.

Don't get me wrong. A little bit of libertarianism might well be useful in our political and economic discourse. But I've never known a libertarian who didn't go completely off the deep end, following their treasured philosophy to its most absurd conclusions. Is being a little bit libertarian like being a little bit pregnant, then? It frequently seems that way.

Another excerpt from Jacoby's column:
The influence of Rand on the current generation of anti-government activists is powerful. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who is actually 41 but still looks like a teenager (I’m wondering if believing in Rand after age 25 stops you from getting wrinkles), credits his reading of Rand for the philosophy embodied in his deficit-cutting budget proposal. The Ryan budget would, among its other brilliant ideas, “reform” Medicare by turning it into a voucher program for old people to buy insurance. That no private insurance company will be willing to provide good insurance for 80-year-olds at any price (the sort of reality ignored by Rand in her worship of the market) is no problem if you embrace teenage logic. In the world of teenage fantasy, one never grows sick or old.

What’s fascinating about Rand’s appeal to the right is that the tea party (which, contrary to predictions by pundits, has turned out to be every bit as culturally and religiously conservative as the pre-tea party Republican base) is able to ignore her atheism, strong support for abortion, unconventional sexual views and oft-repeated disdain for the traditional family. I guess Rand’s views on money trump everything. In Atlas Shrugged, she writes, “Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns—or dollars. Take your choice—there is no other.”

That phrase “blood, whips and guns—or dollars” is, as the commercial says, priceless. Rand apparently never heard of systems—say, slavery—that depended on blood, whips, guns and dollars.

Yeah, Rand's atheism and her unconventional sexual views - actually, any hint of sex at all - would have been right up my alley when I was 15. After all, a turgid romance is better than no romance at all. But it's odd that the right wing ignores all that.

Then again, the right wing successfully ignores the fact that the basic goal of the Republican Party - pretty much their only goal, judging by what they did when they controlled all three branches of the federal government recently - is to give tax cuts to the rich. They talk a good game when it comes to those "culture war" issues, but that stuff is clearly not important to them.

In fact, it would be politically disastrous for the GOP if they were successful at ending abortion, since then all those one-issue voters might start thinking about what else the Republicans were doing. But again, it's weird how they can completely ignore their heroine's views on abortion, or anything else, except for her implausible economic ideas.

I’m wondering if this idealization of feminine hero-worship, which comes through strongly in Rand’s novels, is the real reason why so many conservative men remain boyishly attached to her. Her attitude about relations between men and women bears about as much relationship to real sex as her attitude about money being the root of all goodness does to the real market.

The atheism of this third-rate philosophy fellow traveler has always bothered me, because Rand’s devotion to tooth-and-claw social Darwinism, her insistence that people owe nothing to one another, represent a stereotype that religious believers commonly use against atheists. That her “objectivism” is based on faith as strongly as Das Kapital or the Summa Theologica is obvious to anyone who has the good sense to fall out of love with her at 16 after falling in love at 15.

We atheists aren't identical. We tend to be progressives, economically and socially, but we certainly aren't identical clones. I've known atheists who were libertarians and atheists who were communists (yeah, that seems so laughably old-fashioned these days, doesn't it?).

I come at my own atheism from skepticism and from science, basically from the idea that it's a good thing to have evidence backing up your beliefs. Claim whatever you like, but without evidence - good evidence - why should I believe it? But there's nothing scientific about social Darwinism, any more than there was anything skeptical about the official atheism of the Soviet Union. Both are completely alien to my kind of thinking.

Well, I never did read Ayn Rand. When I was older, I looked at her books, but they certainly didn't seem appealing then. I have, however, read many science fiction books with a libertarian slant. But they've never seemed very plausible. In fact, the most plausible SF treatment of a libertarian world that I can remember was Alexis A. Gilliland's The End of the Empire (1983), which was hardly very flattering to the whole concept.

But all of those books are just fiction. Yes, they can be entertaining, but does it really make sense to base your economic and political views on a work of fiction? That's something I've never understood about Ayn Rand fans. Fiction isn't real. Good fiction just has to seem plausible, not really be plausible. There's a big difference. (Later in her life, Ayn Rand did write non-fiction essays and books about her philosophy, but it generally seems like her fiction has been what her fans actually read.)

And very little I've heard about libertarian political and economic thought really makes sense. It might be plausible enough for fiction - like telepathy or faster-than-light spaceship drives - but that's a much lower hurdle. Or it should be. In real-life matters, we need to demand evidence that an appealing idea might actually work as claimed.


Chimeradave said...

It's really quite funny that you did a blog about Ayn Rand because I've been thinking about Objectivism because "Beggars in Spain's" Yagaiism is basically identical to Objectivism and I was very pleased that the main character in "Beggars" rejects Yagaiism and begins to form her own philosophy which has compassion for all people.

So maybe we just need to send a copy of "Beggars in Spain" to Paul Ryan and anyone else that shares his philosophies. We already know he believes what he reads in fiction.

WCG said...

I meant to re-read Beggars in Spain this month, John, but I'm not getting around to it. And I don't remember it well enough to comment.

I find it hard to believe that people still buy Ayn Rand's philosophy, but there's a lot I find hard to believe these days!