“I want you to observe, that those who cry the loudest about their
disillusionment, about the failure of virtue, the futility of reason,
the impotence of logic – are those who have achieved the full, exact,
logical result of the ideas they preached, so mercilessly logical that
they dare not identify it.”
                           Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Ayn Rand praised the virtues of individualism and independence to the skies.  In Atlas Shrugged, philosopher Hugh Akston tells Dagny, “Consider the reasons which make us certain that we
are right… but not the fact that we are certain. If you are not
convinced, ignore our certainty. Don’t be tempted to substitute our
judgment for your own.”  
Her heroes do whatever they think is right, regardless of what anyone else thinks.  It’s quite a vision.

In the late 1950s, Rand’s writings inspired a full-blown Objectivist counter-culture centered around New York City.  And what did this counter-culture look like?  Anne Heller’s excellent Ayn Rand and the World She Made paints a frightening picture.  The counter-culture didn’t just fall short of the Randian virtues.  It radically contradicted them:

During Saturday-night socials with members of the Collective [Rand’s inner circle of followers] and their spouses, friends and younger guests, “enormous enthusiasm was expected for her every deed and utterance,” Branden told an audience in 1996.  She discouraged the kind of probing or “invalid” questions that she had been happy to answer in the 1950s… Rand increasingly judged her votaries’ merit on the basis of their “sense of life,” or subconscious attitude toward the grandeur and perfectability of man, and encouraged them to do the same with one another…  The new emphasis on “sense of life” placed devotees’ longings, fears, tastes, sexual impulses – anything – on the table for approval or condemnation.  “Most people were walking on eggshells,” recalled Henry Holzer, who joined the inner circle as Rand’s “intellectual bodyguard”…

Just a few examples:

A slip of the tongue by an Objectivist who liked Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho or who secretly didn’t like the paintings of… Spanish surrealist Jose Manuel Capuletti, could bring accusations of mysticism, whim worship, malevolence, or an attitude of “anti-life.”  If a transgression suggested disloyalty or simply that someone was “not my kind of person,” often no amount of prior goodwill made any difference.  “She was the Evel Knievel of leaping to conclusions,” said Hessen, who himself went through a number of painful episodes.  Although she typically forgave isolated lapses, tantrums and purges became more common in the late 1960s.

While Heller quotes Nathaniel Branden, her sources reveal that he was probably worse than Rand herself:

It was typically Branden who took charge of the denunciation of followers who had strayed, and sometimes he revealed information from his therapy sessions with them.  “There was very little psychological privacy in those days,” he offered as an explanation to an interviewer in 1999.  “Everything that was wrong with anybody or was thought to be wrong was publicly discussed…”  By the early 1960s, he “was constantly denouncing,” Barbara recalled, and because he was “everybody’s therapist, his denunciation was much more damaging than Ayn’s.”

I attended the “official” Objectivist summer seminar back in 1989 – the year of the David Kelley purge – and everything that Heller writes fits my experience.

OK, so Ayn Rand created a cult.  What does this have to do with evolutionary psychology?  Simple: Contrary to Rand, the fact that human beings care about the opinions of the people around them doesn’t stem from philosophical error.  It stems from evolution.  Human beings evolved in small groups where good relations were vital for survival.  People who weren’t interested in other people’s opinions had trouble staying alive and reproducing.  Caring about the opinions of others isn’t as immutable as our sexual preferences, but it’s very deeply rooted.   Consider: How much would I have to pay you to walk in front of an audience of a hundred strangers and make a fool of yourself?

Rand was no exception.  She thought that her affair with Branden was morally above reproach, but made every effort to keep it secret.  Why?  Because unlike John Galt, she shared our normal human concern about the opinions of other people – including complete strangers:

[A]nother thought struck her and put her in a panic.  If he had been underhanded enough to deceive her about his feelings toward her for months or years on end, what else might he be capable of?  Would he do something terrible to embarrass her in public or discredit her ideas…?  “I can’t predict what he’ll do, and I’m terrified of what may happen to my name and reputation!” she cried in despair.  Growing tired and tearful as the night wore on, she murmured, “My life is over.  He took away this earth.”

If people really could stop caring about other people’s opinions, Rand’s counter-culture never would have gotten off the ground.   Within five minutes, prospective members would have adamantly disagreed with Rand about something or other, and she would have purged them.  Her counter-culture took root precisely because even avowed individualists will feign agreement in order to fit in.

Ironically, individualist doctrine made the Randian counter-culture especially totalitarian.  Most normal movements explicitly accept appeals to authority, consensus, civility, etc.  So while they’re bossy, they don’t ask their members to live a lie.  Catholics can freely admit that the Pope is in charge.  What the Pope says, goes!  Objectivists, in contrast, couldn’t just honestly submit to Rand’s authority.  They had to pretend to accept all of Rand’s positions on their merits.

If Rand really wanted to build an individualist sub-culture, she would have done so in an evolutionarily informed way.  If people naturally care about the opinions of others, jumping on people is a good way to get dishonest conformity, but a bad way to get an honest exchange of ideas.  Instead, an individualist sub-culture must be built upon tolerance and honesty.  I’d suggest three key norms:

1. Don’t think less of people who sincerely disagree.

2. Do think less of people who insincerely agree.
3. Do think less of people who think less of people who sincerely disagree.

I don’t claim that these norms are easy.  It’s tough for humans to follow them perfectly.  But they’re do-able – and given human nature, they’re self-reinforcing.  In fact, these guidelines are pillars of the legendary GMU lunch.  Our tradition is now in its thirteenth year, and I’m proud to say that unlike the Objectivists, we’ve never purged a member.