Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Potted (or Potty) Ayn Rand

I discovered on another person's blog profile that she listed "Ayn Rand" amongst favourite books (OK it was Laurel at Online Communities - see links).

Rand is an interesting character, best known today for two novels - Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. However, she was primarily a philosopher and polemicist. My own Rand "journey" goes back to the late 1970s when Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister. Being a young lefty (a reader of Marx, but never a Marxist; always a socialist, but never a Communist) I reviled Fraser, especially so when my favourite rag - The Nation Review - explained to us all he was a follower of Ayn Rand, who professed a particularly virulent form of "selfish" liberalism. That was enough for me, but in a habit now long left behind, I read no further.

That was until the early 1990s when I was doing some work with some US consultants. They noted my still leftish tinge (what they would call "liberal") and one of them urged me to read The Fountainhead. Now this novel by Ayn Rand is quite powerful, but make no mistake this is a novel designed to sell a philosophy. The novel's hero is an architect (Howard Roark) who is highly individualistic, and the novel relates his "genius" to this individualism. As one position describes it Rand's books revolve around heroes who have all her "objectivist" traits.

One of the other characters is an art critic Toohey. The memorable exchange on P 389 goes;
Toohey presses the issue: "Mr. Roark, we're alone here. Why don't you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us." Roark replies, "But I don't think of you"
This exchange alone made a big impact on me, because I'm a bit eccentric at times, and definitely over the top and uncaring in many other circumstances. I took faith from this that what I was doing was okay - I sort of liked the idea that that's how I would like to answer.

But what I started to become quite horrified me. Being "uncompromising" alone is not a positive value.

While The Fountainhead is entertaining, Atlas Shrugged is simply horrid. It is ultimately a book that posits that the trickle down effects of the efforts of a few great men is what makes wealth for everyone else, and asks where would the world be if they "went on strike". This is the really political book, whereas The Fountainhead is philosophical.

Now I'm not going to try to lay out here the whole basis of "objectivism" - or "enlightened self-interest" - but it is in its simplest a highly refined version of utilitarianism (or classical liberalism). That is individuals acting alone to maximise their own happiness is the best way to maximise outcomes for all. It actually goes a stage further, and suggests that one person attempting to have concern for another is wrong, because you can't know that person's interests better than that person.

This view is held up as an alternative to "collectivism". "Collectivism" itself is a word I think driven by the early 20th century development of the thoughts, when the Soviet Union was still young. But "concern for others" is a long way from "collectivism".

This "libertarianism" (a word Rand disliked) has an economic counterpart in extreme promoters of the operation of markets - that any intervention, other than laws for security, protection of property rights, and enforcement of contracts is wrong. But it is this very view that shows the flaw in the libertarian tradition - because in a society motivated by Randian values no one ever cares enough to organise the "institutions" to create property rights.

In a historical perspective, capitalism could only emerge in a society that had first accepted the ethos to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". All the early liberal and utilitarian theorists had this as an assumption - Rand not only doesn't accept the assumption, she argues it is wrong.

The Fountainhead is a rollicking good read. Unfortunately, I'm not capable of writing the book that needs to be written to sell the philosophy, not of collectivism, but mutuality.

For anyone interested Googling "Ayn Rand" finds you heaps. Here are some of the more major sites:

The Ayn Rand Institute
All About Ayn Rand
What is Objectivism
Wikipedia entry on Ayn Rand


Laurel Papworth said...

Oopsie. I didn't realise Ayn Rand wanted me to like Howard Roark. I thought he was a perfect anti-hero. She is a great writer, something amazing comes off the page when you are reading it, whether you like it or not. I'm one of those people that thinks the world is a better place because of and not in spite of all writing; good, bad, nasty, nice.

I mean, if you were on an airplane and you had the choice between reading Ayn Rand or say, umm, some crappy author. I can't think of one right now. Maybe a Mills and Boon romance? Which one would you read? (Me? I'd swipe the Harry Potter from the kid in the next row then deny all knowledge. :P )

David Havyatt said...

I have to confess that on a trip to London two years ago the only book I packed for the plane was The DaVinci Code. I dragged myself through the first 50 pages till his improbable cliff hangers kept the momentum going.

It rates as the most seriously badly written book that I have ever finished reading.

You are right, The Fountainhead is superbly crafted.

And I'm with you, I'd nick a Potter, but there is no guarantee there is a kid reading it. After the last book came out my staff and I went out for lunch for an impromtu book club to discuss it.