Join the Party: Why You Should Celebrate Rand's 100th
Today is Ayn Rand’s one hundredth birthday, and I want to party down. I probably wouldn’t be a professor if it weren’t for her, and even if I were, I doubt I would be having a fraction of the fun.
But when I have a party, I like all my friends to come. And the fact is, many of the thinkers I respect don’t think too highly of Ayn Rand. I know Robin Hanson doesn’t, and I suspect Bill Dickens doesn’t either. My blogging goal this week is to persuade all my favorite Rand nay-sayers to join the festivities. Preview of my next three posts:
1. Ayn Rand was an excellent novelist. She is one of the greatest of the Russian philosophical novelists, in the tradition of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Yes, Rand’s characters exemplify philosophical positions. But she pulls it off; her characters – including the villains – are compelling, not “preachy” or “wooden.”
2. Rand was a wise philosopher. She stood up for the obvious – there is a real world out there, and the best way to understand it is by rational thought – when the obvious bizarrely fell out of intellectual fashion. More creatively, she asked hard questions about the morality of selfishness and the welfare state that deserve the attention of every thoughtful person.
3. Rand was an insightful social scientist. A casual reading of Atlas Shrugged shows that she got the essence of general equilibrium theory. She loves to trace the indirect ripple effects of economic shocks, both positive (the invention of Rearden Metal) and negative (a new law forbidding people from owning multiple businesses). But a casual reading underestimates her contribution to social science. Rand’s general equilibrium model encompasses both markets and politics. The invention of Rearden Metal does far more than change the economy; it also affects public opinion, which affects government policy, which in turn feeds back into the economy.
If Rand has so much to recommend her, why the hostility? Non-leftists rarely do well in intellectual popularity contests, but even thinkers who broadly agree with Rand express distaste for her. The main reason, I have little doubt, is that she had a touchy personality, and lots of sour and dogmatic followers. I doubt I could have stayed friends with her for long. But that’s a flimsy reason to snub her work.
The secondary reason, I suspect, is that disappointment with Rand as a human being has led critics (many of them former admirers) to apply unreasonably high standards to her work. Yes, many of her philosophical arguments are question-begging. Shocking… unless you’ve read the work of Descartes, Locke, Kant, or Mill. They all make plenty of embarrassingly bad arguments. If you don’t want to dismiss their whole subject matter, you’ve got to judge philosophers based on their best work and/or the novel questions they raise. And by that standard, Rand more than holds her own.
Not convinced yet? Well, the last thing Rand would have wanted would be for you to celebrate her birthday on faith. So tune in to my next three posts and see if I can’t give you a good reason to raise your glass to a precocious, wide-eyed girl born in Czarist Russia a hundred years ago today.