Universal Translator

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ayn Rand Was Very Silly, But Conservatives Are Just Evil

"There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life:
The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish
fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable
heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood,
unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."

--John Rogers
Kung Fu Monkey

Johann Hari has a new column up over at the UK's The Independent that simply is a must-read. He excoriates today's Republican party for its crass insistence on promoting only the interests of the country's uberwealthy at the direct expense of the less fortunate 99% of Americans. For example, of the Ryan Budget plan he points out that "it halves taxes on the richest 1% and ends all taxes on corporate income, dividends and inheritance. It pays for it by slashing spending on food stamps, health care for the poor and elderly, and basic services. . . . Ryan says 'the reason I got involved in public service' was because he read the writings of Ayn Rand, who described the poor as 'parasites' who must 'perish', and are best summarized by the title of one of her books: The Virtue of Selfishness."

However, the vast majority of Hari's column devotes itself to Donald Trump and what it says about the modern Republican party that he is now the party's frontrunner in Presidential nominee polls. Describing Trump as "the Republican Id, finally entirely unleashed from all restraint and all reality," Hari offers up a few choice quotes from the Donald about how America should deal with the rest of the world. On Libya: "I would go in and I would take the oil . . . I would take the oil and stop this baby stuff." On Iraq: "We stay there and we take the oil. . . In the old days, when you have a war and you win, that nation's yours."

* * *

In the liberal blogosphere, which I frequent, there has been for a number of years now a good deal of focus on the new, ersatz Republican followers of Ayn Rand's writings. Alan Greenspan himself, the maestro of our current financial debacle, was one of Rand's most devoted followers -- he actually sat at her feet as a college student and was editor of one of her Objectivist publications. As a result, to this day he so objects to any government regulation of any business or financial activity that he once told Brooksley Born that he was not even in favor of prosecuting financial firms that committed fraud because that would only interfere in the market's ability to punish such firms itself. (He, Larry Summers and Bob Rubin were also instrumental in crushing Born's attempt to impose derivative regulations while she was with the CFTC; of course, given that unregulated derivatives trading is a large part - if not the largest part - of how the financial industry got into the mess it did, that decision seems in retrospect very, very stupid).

In Congress, of course, we have Rep. Paul Ryan and his plan to wage war against almost everyone in America for the benefit of his small number of rich paymasters, and we have newly elected Senator Rand Paul who makes no bones about the fact that he is an Ayn Rand devotee (although it is not true that he was named after Rand; my understanding is that his name is short for 'Randal').

And this constant reference to Ayn Rand's writings by our new Republican Overlords -- who, despite controlling only one chamber of Congress, somehow manage to decide what issues must be taken up by the government (abortion and the deficit, but not jobs or the economy) and how those issues must be framed -- and by bloviating Conservative pundits and TeeVee talking heads, has had an affect on the people who listen to such folk.

For example, about two years ago, shortly after Obama had been sworn into office and the first glimpses of Tea Party Madness were beginning to emerge among the nation's more conservative elderly, I was checking out a few books at my local library. A sizable percentage of the immediate population where I live consists of retirees. Whilst checking out my books I got into a brief conversation with the librarian, who told me that she had just started reading Atlas Shrugged as part of a local book club. She told me she thought it was important that as many people as possible read Ayn Rand's opus because the book is "so relevant, given what's happening in the world today."

Now, a couple of things about this statement struck me immediately. First, I could think of nothing that was "happening in the world" right then that would make Rand's so-called philosophy more relevant than before -- that is, unless you count the fact we now have a black man sitting in the White House. Second, the library doesn't sponsor book clubs; this apparently was something she had gotten into with some unspecified number of friends, and they all had suddenly decided they needed to read Ayn Rand. Third, I couldn't just let this statement go unchallenged, because the last thing we need is people interested in reading Ayn Rand for the lessons they think they can learn from her.

So I explained to the librarian, as gently as I could, that I had read Atlas Shrugged and nearly all of Rand's writings years and years ago, back when I was in High School, and that - like a lot of people who stumble across Rand - I had enjoyed them immensely. However, after I grew up some and gained a greater appreciation of how people work in the real world, I came to see Rand's writings as fairly juvenile. I told her (as nicely as I could) that I thought they were not writings anyone should ever make the mistake of taking seriously.

Unfortunately, not only do we have political leaders who today take these writings very, very seriously, they also mangle Rand's words so that anything that might possibly be worthwhile in her writing has become hopelessly corrupted.

* * *

Unlike a lot of people I see posting in the liberal blogosphere, I don't think that Ayn Rand was evil -- I think she was stupid. More specifically, I think she was so naive about people and how they behave in the Real World that this naivete turned into stupidity. It provided her a huge blind spot that she could exploit to create fictional worlds where people behaved in strange and wonderful ways . . . all of which is fine. Fiction is as fiction does, and if you want to write fiction about people who act like aliens, then be my guest. The problem is that Rand started believing (or maybe really always did believe) that people behave this way in the Real World. And then people who read this fiction started thinking that it provided a map to solving Real World problems.

I'll give you a couple of examples.

Monopolies. In Atlas Shrugged, one of Rand's characters (I think it is Hank Rearden, it's been years since I last read this thing) explains how monopolies are beneficial to human society. He argues that if he can establish a monopoly based on a superior product, then this allows him to take advantage of economies of scale and produce a vast amount of that product at a lower price. Also, he points out that nothing about his monopoly status prevents other entrepreneurs from coming onto the scene and competing with him if they think they have something better, and if they do have something better then ultimately they will drive him out of the market and society will have an even better product.

In the Real World, these assertions are just laughable. Unregulated monopolies do not - ever - take advantage of their monopoly status to offer goods or services at lower prices. They take advantage of their monopoly status to increase their prices to the highest point possible in order to maximize revenue. This means that a substantial portion of society cannot purchase these goods/services, while everyone who can is paying the highest possible price the monopolist can charge.

In the Real World, monopolists do not sit idly by when a new entrepreneur shows up to compete with them by introducing a better product. Instead, they use their monopoly status - and frequently the political power they have obtained with all of the additional profits they have made by exploiting their ability to charge people through the roof -- to prevent the upstart company from competing in the first place. They may refuse to purchase from any supplier who does business with the new competitor, or to sell to any customer who does business with the new competitor. Their size makes these real threats. They may bundle their product with other services they have (Microsoft, anybody?) so that if you buy the one, you also have to buy their lesser, inferior product.

In the Real World, monopolies do not serve the public interest. In Ayn Rand's bizarro world, they somehow do.

Unions and Workplace Regulations. In Atlas Shrugged, Hank Rearden (again) explains to another character that his plants have never been unionized, and that he has never experienced any labor problems. And the reason for this is, he says, simple: Rearden only wants the best employees, and he wants those employees to give him the best they have to offer. Because Rearden believes in trading fairly with all people, he pays his employees more than they can find anywhere else, he provides better working conditions than they can find anywhere else, and each employee knows he is treated with the respect that he will not find anywhere else. (Presumably, this applies not only to Rearden's metallurgists and engineers, but also to his janitors and secretaries). The only punishment for failing to do your job to Rearden's satisfaction is that you will be fired, with no possibility of ever being re-hired by Rearden again. And because every employee knows just how good he has it working with Rearden, they all do exceptional work and everybody is happy.

In Ayn Rand's world, unions and workplace regulations are necessarily evil because they only interfere with each individual's right to negotiate for himself, and because they are so unnecessary. Enlightened employers will always recognize that their work force is an asset, that they will want the best work force they can get, and will therefore always pay their employees decent wages and provide safe and reliable working conditions.

In the Real World, these assertions are just laughable. Labor isn't regarded as an "asset" by corporations, labor is regarded as just another cost of doing business -- and the goal of doing business is to reduce costs as much as possible so as to maximize profits. This is why we had to establish Minimum Wage Laws in this country. As Chris Rock points out: "You know what it means when they pay you minimum wage, you know what they're trying to tell you? It's like: 'Hey, if I could pay you less, I would. But it's against the law."

In the Real World, employers have absolutely no qualms about making each and every employee work as hard as possible for the least amount of money. There is a constant, grinding pressure to find the absolutely worst wages and shittiest working conditions that will still attract the minimum number of people necessary for the company to function.

In the Real World, we all recognize this fact. This is why the Labor Movement and unionization was necessary (and why it is such a shame that unionization has largely been deliberately destroyed by Big Business and their political allies), this is why we need wage laws, safety regulations, this is - ultimately - why we had to fight a Civil War to end half the nation's willingness to maximize profit by actually owning other people.

But in Ayn Rand's bizarro world, none of these things are actually necessary because rational people always recognize the need to treat each other fairly, so any attempt to ensure people are treated fairly just get in the way of individual achievement.

Sex. Okay, now it is just getting silly. In Atlas Shrugged, Francisco d'Anconia delivers a 4 or 5 page speech to (I believe) Hank Rearden where he strongly implies that (SPOILER ALERT) despite the fact he has cultivated the image of a decadent playboy who constantly sleeps with myriad beautiful women, this is actually not possible for him.  And not because he is gay.  You see, in Ayn Rand's world it is impossible for people to be sexually attracted to each other and sleep together unless they recognize in each other similar philosophic values and ideals.  For Rand, sexual attraction can only result in a recognition that the other person's values and ideals match yours.

In the Real World, this assertion is just . . . okay, y'know what, let's just cut this out.  Really, Rand?  That is how sexual attraction works with people?  Yeah, I suppose you're right.  I can't remember the last time I went to a bar, or a club, or a party, or was on a blind date and I didn't think to myself:  "Wow, she sure is attractive!  I hope she shares my belief in free-market principles and how government regulation is always evil and immoral, because if she doesn't then I won't want to have sex with her!"  And I am sure this is exactly what Rand Paul, Paul Ryan and Alan Greenspan were all thinking when they first met their wives.

Seriously, Ayn Rand's musings on human sexuality are so far divorced from the Real World that "laughable" doesn't begin to describe it.  I am not even sure if there is a word in the English language that can describe the sheer hallucinatory quality of her "thinking" on this subject.

* * *

These are only a couple of examples -- and there are many, many more I could give -- where Rand makes it very clear that what she is describing is not the Real World, not real people, but merely some abstract fictional universe she has created and populated with abstract fictional people that she can then move about freely in order to reach her predetermined conclusions.  And, again, that is fine -- fiction is as fiction does.  But no one should allow themselves to mistake Rand's fictional world for a blueprint to be followed when making Real World decisions.

* * *

And, hey, in all honesty and just to be "fair and balanced" . . . there are still some things that Rand wrote about that I do like, and that I do agree with.  Three examples come to me just off the top of my head.

(1)  Yes, there is such a thing as objective reality, and it cannot be changed by wishing it were different.  Throughout her books Rand holds up for ridicule characters that she insists are "trying to deny reality" (even if it is just her own, often patently ridiculous reality) by engaging in Magical  Thinking that denies objective facts.  This is surely an idea I can get behind.

(2)  No, the trappings of pomp and ceremony do not magically confer value, worth  or meaning to people who indulge in pomp and ceremony.  There is a passage in Atlas Shrugged where Dagny Taggert's debutante ball is held and Dagny -- who previously had been looking forward to the ball -- is found later that evening moping at the top of the stairs.  Dagny explains that she is dejected because the other attendees seem to have gotten how this works backwards; they seem to think that the lights, and the silverware, and the gowns and tuxedoes, the music and the ballroom itself are supposed to automatically make them all interesting, when really it is supposed to work the other way around.  Interesting, intelligent people are supposed to give meaning to the pomp and ceremony.  Yeah, I get this too; you can't arrogate significance to yourself merely by surrounding yourself with trappings.

(3)  No single human can survive in this world alone; we need each other, and the things that other people can give us.  And - broadly speaking - there are two ways for us to acquire these things:  we can either take them from others by force, or we can trade the things we have for the things we need.  We can either be thugs or we can be merchants.

I like this idea too.  I think Rand is correct when she points out that most of human history involves the strong -- the aristocrats and kings, the plutocrats and generals, the emperors and feudal lords -- simply taking what they wanted from the weak.  And I agree with Rand that trade is a morally superior form of dealing with each than is violence.  You'll get no argument from me on this point.

* * *

But what strikes me about the few ideas of value that I still perceive in Ayn Rand's work is how little her Republican avatars care about such things, how they completely disregard such things.

For example, is there any doubt that the modern Republican party is the party of Magical Thinking?  That they are more than willing to ignore mountains and mountains of evidence in order to maintain comforting fictions?  Iraq was in bed with al Queda/had weapons of mass destruction/was responsible for 9/11.  The United States doesn't torture.  Manmade climate change doesn't exist.  Evolution never occurred.  Barack Obama was not born in the United States.  The United States is poised to adopt "Sharia Law."  There is a War on Christmas.

And as for the bit about Dagny's debutante ball . . . y'know, for eight long years I could not get that scene out of my head every time I had to watch George "Little Boots" Bush walk out to give a Presidential address.  I'll be the first to admit that I may just be biased here, but I always got the impression that Little Boots loved the pomp and ceremony, the lights, the marble, the tapestries, the costumes (his flight jackets, etc.) and that he firmly believed that because he was surrounded by this pomp that alone was sufficient to make him a serious person. 

But whether this was really true or just my impression, I don't think there can be any real dispute that this was the underlying thought whenever Republicans or conservative bloviators accused critics of Little Boots of being "treasonous."  The idea -- unspoken but present just the same -- is that the man sitting in the office cannot be criticized because the office magically confers upon that man the respect inherent to the office.  Of course, it really works the other way around.  If the Oval Office is occupied by a duplicitous idiot, then that duplicitous idiot can besmirch the office, but the office has no power to validate and vindicate the idiot.  The respect due the office flows from the people who occupy it; to believe otherwise is to "attempt to reverse causality" (a favorite Rand phrase).

And finally - and perhaps most importantly -- think about Rand's views about the choice we have to make when we deal with the rest of the world:  we can be thugs, or we can be traders.  And then think about Donald Trump's assertions that the United States should just go into Libya and Iraq and "take the oil."  Trump may be expressing this sentiment louder and more publicly, but he is only giving voice to something a lot of conservatives have been thinking for years.

For example, back in 2005, shortly after Katrina hit and gas prices temporarily spiked, a woman in my town told me in no uncertain terms that she was tired of paying higher prices at the pump and she didn't see why we just couldn't seize all of Iraq's oil fields and simply take their oil.  "After all," she explained to me, "we need it."  And that, apparently, was the only justification she needed to steal from other people.

These people have absolutely no qualms about turning the United State of America into a nation of thugs, and they see our military as the gun we can use to rob the rest of world.  I truly don't think you can get further afield from what Ayn Rand wrote about such things than this, and yet these same conservatives are the ones most willing to point to Rand's writings to justify why they believe these terrible, terrible things. Things antithetical to what Rand actually wrote.

* *  *

And what about the ludicrous fantasy things Rand wrote about, the things that don't match up in with the Real World?  Well, here, today's modern Republican seems to have missed the point entirely.

Look, I'm not advocating on behalf of these ideas -- like I said, they don't work in the Real World because people don't behave they way Rand's idealized characters do -- but you'd think people who profess to being such Ayn Rand devotees would recognize that she didn't just assert that might makes right, that the rich are inherently superior because if they weren't they wouldn't be rich in the first place.  What Rand argued was that some people are inherently superior -- by dint of their intelligence and rationality -- and that the social system should be set up to reward such folk.

But once again, the new Rand disciples "attempt to reverse causality" by asserting that the economic elite among us are necessarily the most worthy because if they weren't they wouldn't be the economic elite.  And this is absurd.  First, the social system is obviously not set up along Rand's idealized lines (again, just to be clear, nor should it be because it wouldn't work).  Second, there are a whole lot of different ways to become a member of the economic elite -- including theft, unfair competition and, the modern Conservative's perennial favoritemerely inheriting wealth.

Rand's modern Republican avatars cannot have read her work too carefully; at most, they found in her novels -- just as people can find in any Holy Book they choose to follow, whether the Bible or the Qu'ran -- a few phrases that can be twisted to justify what they want to do anyway.

And so, now . . . greed is goodTaxation is theftTaking what you want by force is just as good as trading for it, because if you are strong/wealthy/powerful you are automatically moral.   And on and on and on.

It is a recipe designed for the conservative politicians who adhere to it to allow them to be bootlickers for the Koch Brothers, for Goldman Sachs, for the hedge fund managers taking home tens of millions of dollars every single year and paying only 15% capital gains tax on all that money -- a tax rate lower than a public school teacher, or a cop, or a fireman.

It is a credo specifically designed to let these conservative politicians carry water for the most powerful among us, and still pretend that they haven't sold their souls and sold out their country.  And I've got to believe that they do this knowingly, because no one can possibly be too stupid not realize that this is what they are doing.

So while Ayn Rand may have been silly, these people are just evil.


  1. Ayn Rand, like all fiction writers, creates a world, her world, in which one can walk in and explore. Daniel Defoe. James Fenimore Cooper. J.R.R. Tolkien. Few fiction writers reflect reality. Or if they do they make it interesting to us by exaggeration. Dickens. Twain. Hemingway.

    Let us not chastise fiction writers for hawking their stock in trade -- fiction. Let us go in, have a look around, be amused if we may, take from it what lessons there may be, and depart perhaps wiser.

    Hank Reardon becomes rich and powerful inventing better steel when the world needed lightweight composite material for tomorrow's airplanes and superior solar cell technology for its energy needs.

    And that is the problem with all of yesterday's cooking served up and dished out as solutions to today's problems, from the left and from the right.

    Today's answers are not to be found in yesterday's thinking, but in tomorrow's.

  2. Ayn Rand was a sociopath by every DSM standard but her devotees, many of them know better. No philosophy, even secular humanism supports the greedy selfish idea of objectivism.

    Wanting to care for and love the weak is not exclusive to humans. Empathy is seen in all of the higher animals. The only humans who have no empathy are sociopaths like Casey Anthony and OJ Simpson and many Republicans.

    There was a true story about a gorilla and a cat. The handlers have the gorilla a cat for a companion and the gorilla bonded with the cat. The cat gave nothing to the gorilla. It brought it no food or husbandry but none the less the gorilla loved the cat. One day the cat died and the gorilla cried and mourned for over one month.