In recent weeks, Ayn Rand and her work have been increasingly mentioned in the media. Much of this I attribute to the nomination of Paul Ryan as Republican Party vice presidential candidate, since Ryan has often cited her work as an influence. The media has not been kind to this.
I’m not sure, however, how valid Rand bashing really is. Now, as someone who has read Atlas Shrugged and is currently work his way through The Fountainhead , I have to confess that I myself have mixed feelings about Ayn Rand’s ideas. On one hand, I appreciate the personal values and lessons she promotes. On the other, I think that her views on the market and the arts can oftentimes be confused and contradictory. This being the case, it’s a little confusing to me that she is often chosen by critcis as a representative for all libertarian and market-oriented modes of thought.
For one thing, a great piece from Reason online makes a few observations that fly in the face of Rand bashing. Her works are often caricatured as pieces in which heroic, wealthy, and successful industrialists take on the moochers of society, and to an extent, this is true. Those who levy these criticisms based on what they’ve read about Rand’s books rather than what they could have read in them, however, expose themselves by their failure to note that almost all of her villains are also wealthy, many of them are industrialists, and a significant portion of her heroic characters are poor and even unconcerned with material gain.
This brings me to my next point: not only do Rand bashers tend, in my experience, to be relatively unfamiliar with her writing, but they also tend to be wholly unfamiliar with more serious free market literature. To illustrate this, I’ll use a phrase I often hear from dissenters when discussing the ideas behind a free society: “I’ve read Ayn Rand, and” or “I’ve read Atlas Shrugged, and.” This, to me, seems like a cop out, for several reasons. In the first case, it’s entirely possible that they haven’t actually read these books, and that they’ve only read what’s been written about them by yet other people who haven’t read them. On a more useful note, though, it’s important to point out that Ayn Rand is not the go-to thinker of choice in terms of libertarian political thought.
What I mean is this: Rand is famous in part for her vicious attitude towards those who disagreed with her in the slightest (her philosophy, after all, was called Objectivism), which to me seems to be at odds with most libertarian thought and literature. In fact, it creates a significant tension against the subjective theory of value, which is one of the most important elements of the economic rationale for a free society. To dispel her writings as unintellectual and not worthy of serious consideration, then, does nothing either to advance progressive arguments or to refute those of libertarians and free marketeers. Intellectually, it is an endeavor with no relevance at all.
I suspect, then, that people continue to do this because it is easier to dismantle a caricature of an opponent’s view than it is to familiarize yourself with their theory and refute it line by line. (Jonathan Finegold has written a similar critique of Paul Krugman and Matt Yglesias .) To put it differently, as many times as critics have told me they’ve read Atlas Shrugged before continuing an argument, not once have I heard any of the following: “I’ve read Lysander Spooner’s “No Treason,” and”; “I’ve read Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State , and”; “I’ve read Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action , and”; etc, etc, etc.
In the end, I don’t think that most serious free market political thinkers really consider Ayn Rand’s writing to be central to their beliefs. I think that they view her more as a gateway writer, who can inspire an initial interest in a reader before prompting him to move on to more significant works. To attempt to refute theories of free societies by lambasting Rand, then, is a little bit like if conservatives bashed Naomi Klein in order to refute progressivism. It is completely irrelevant to the larger point, because it refuses to take into account any of the elements of it.