2012-09-30

Ayn Rand (The Horror! The Horror!)

Over at Cafe Hayek, Donald Boudreaux cites an excerpt of something Christopher Hitchens wrote as the "Quotation of the Day" (a daily Cafe Hayek feature). The quote is an alternative send-up of the Golden Rule, which Boudreaux compares to similar ideas as expressed in the Bible and in the works of Ayn Rand:
...It is a principle of peace that, when expressed in the Bible (“And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” – Luke 6:31) is justly celebrated.  But when the very same idea is expressed by Ayn Rand it is somehow thought to be uncivilized and absurd.

I am not a Randian or an Objectivist.  But my interpretation of Rand’s core principle has always been “Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you” (Hitchens 2001: 140)....
Clearly, I agree with Boudreaux on this. Furthermore, it makes me a little sad that people are forced into caveats in order to acknowledge the truth and wisdom in Rand's work. ("I'm not an Objectivist, but...")

I'm largely unfamiliar with the Ayn Rand Institute, the Institute for Objectivist Studies, and all the rest of the Objectivist infrastructure out there. But for the last fifteen years or so, I've read pretty much every piece of material written by Ayn Rand that I can get my hands on. I am as much of an "Ayn Rand expert" as any casual reader can possibly be. When I think carefully upon what I've read, it's extremely difficult for me to understand what the core criticisms of Objectivism are. Most of the objections don't hold a lot of water for me.

It's not as if Rand was a faultless thinker who always and everywhere spoke the unbridled truth. Like everyone else in the known universe, she was not a perfect human being. Her misinterpretation of Immanuel Kant, for example, is a notorious intellectual flaw. Libertarians who prefer the Murray Rothbard view of the universe are furthermore harshly critical of Rand's view of epistemology, which she mostly imported from Empiricism.

But that is a rather pedantic point, from the layman's perspective. Epistemological quibbles are stuff for academia. When most people roll their eyes, sigh, and go red in the face at the mere mention of Ayn Rand, they are most certainly not objecting to Empiricist epistemology.

So what are they objecting to? Rand wrote - as Prof. Boudreaux remarks - about the Golden Rule. She wrote about achieving world peace through free trade. She wrote about individual rights and the value of the individual over the collective. She was a capable critic of groupthink and the politics of group association. She celebrated mankind's achievements in science, technology, business, art, and sport. She wrote highly celebrated novels that some people find moving and others find boring. She excoriated what was known at the time as "The New Left," a movement that, for the most part, died with the 1960s; a movement that most people under the age of 50 couldn't even explain if they had to. She led discussion groups in New York, in the 1960s that aimed to promote her ideas about free trade and individuality. Free trade and individuality are not only core American values, they are core human values, which you will find expressed all over the world.

In short, all criticism of Ayn Rand is either personal (see Murray Rothbard's criticism, a criticism which he would levy at his every other libertarian contemporary) or academic (see above re: epistemology). So why the vitriol? The world's hate-fest against Ayn Rand is warped and bizarre.