Risk Markets And Politics

Friday, June 24, 2005

Why I Don't Believe In Ayn Rand

I have heard Objectivists proudly cite that Atlas Shrugged ranks second only to the bible in book sales. Rand’s accessible fiction may be evangelically useful in promoting ideas about free markets and capitalism, and I would probably agree with her position on almost any specific issue, but nonetheless something has always bothered me about her writing. Her philosophy has always been uncomfortably fundamentalist for my tastes – if not dogmatic, then darn close, and so I have never found her to be, shall we say, pantheon-worthy.

Rand is fundamentalist insofar as she thinks in terms of absolutes, which is often. Given her views on the use of force, this isn’t inexcusable in itself, but dogma isn’t typically a hallmark of great thinking. It is easy to grow tired of the callow confidence that proclaims everything, when “properly understood”, to be absolute, black-and-white, and completely objective. “A is A” – but this is only true insofar as it is a symbolic tautology! Anything that exists in reality is going to exist in time, and time is something that Rand never sufficiently addresses. Rand had to repress her own thought about time because of her desire for absolute foundations, and this is where I can offer a positive alternative. The Austrian mistrust of mathematical economics partly has to do with the fact that the models are instantaneous, and deal only in re-writing symbols, thereby expressing differences as identities. In contrast, Austrian praxeology addresses time and causality. As an example where Rand neglects these aspects of reality, why does she see subjectivity as a negation of reality if thought, however divergent from current reality, can have objective consequences in time? Additionally, Von Mises held a subjectivist theory of value, recognizing that the realm of the rational is always subject to the non-rational, i.e. ends aren’t necessarily rational. This is in contrast to Rand’s philosophy which largely consists of various combinations of the words “absolute”, “reality” and “reason.” I can understand how Rand’s writing is a somewhat independent reaction to the milieu of subjectivity that dominated 19th and 20th century philosophy, but just because something isn’t absolutely correct does not mean that its absolute opposite is valid! (Rand truly excels at straw-man and slippery slope arguments, occasionally in combination.) Randians may claim that the ideas of Von Mises and Hayek are too “free-floating” and then, quite earnestly offer Objectivism as a base. No thanks, guys.

Rand would have you believe that having no absolute standards means that you have absolutely no standards. (“The Age of Envy”) Given her background, we can excuse her allergies to anything “social”, but in a society people have different perspectives and it is in fact possible for there to be meaningful values without there being one absolute, universal, fundamental value. Values can be intransitive; they may exist in a rock-scissors-paper structure. We know by Arrow’s theorem that this is true for a group of people. Rand believes that, “nothing can be learned about man by studying society” (“What is Capitalism?”) but it is possible to imagine that this can also be true for one person over a span of time without having to say that they lack values. That person’s values were never absolute, but at no point in time could they be said to be lacking values absolutely. The fact that at any point in time they may have seemed absolute is irrelevant.

The Austrian subjectivist theory of value starkly highlights an important contradiction in the logic of Rand’s work. With one hand she pounds the table regarding absolute rationality and the like, while feeling for a nebulous “sense of life” (an “emotional atomosphere”) with the other. What else is the “sense of life” but the irrational underpinning of rational values? We can guess why Rand is haunted by this theme especially in her later work. It is clear that rationality alone cannot explain Rand’s romanticism, her exaltations of skyscrapers and rockets, for instance. (The former aren’t cost-effective beyond a certain height and the practical applications of the latter are always suspect) I am not criticizing her specific sense of life, but insofar as she had one, it wasn’t completely dictated by reason, nor is anyone’s. Rand’s “sense of life” is one of those seemingly marginal aspects of a work that, when carefully scrutinized, threaten to collapse the whole in contradiction. This is just a case of not reading what one writes – that the rational ought to cause the emotional, and speaking of writing…

The “absolutism of reality” is a typical Randian phrase. The first question is one of basic word usage: why “absolutism”? Is reality only exhibiting a tendency towards or style of the absolute? If it’s only a tendency, then reality is not actually absolute. However, one can never assume that Rand is employing basic philosophical terms correctly. Case in point: Rand misuses “existential” to mean existing or being. (e.g., in "The Objectivist Ethics" and "Faith and Force") While it is fine to appropriate words, Rand has not in my opinion distinguished herself sufficiently to color outside the lines in this way. One might be tempted to think that she is simply adding syllables to simple, accurate words to make them sound more philosophical. Most glaring of all is her chronically laughable use of “metaphysical”. It is not used to mean “ontological” nor “transcendental” nor "totalizing". Sometimes it is simply used instead of "physical." Mostly it is used as literally "beyond the physical", but insofar as this is the case, it adds no information and is devoid of explanatory force. With Rand, “metaphysical” is often an almost-meaningless gesture, meant to signal, “this is a philosophical sentence.”

People want to believe in Ayn Rand for various reasons. They want to believe in an American Philosopher, a Woman Philosopher, a Capitalist Philosopher, etc. These have existed and will continue to do so with or without Rand. Again, I would probably agree with her on almost any specific political issue, but whenever I see some kind of idol made in her image, I reach for a sledgehammer.

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