Ayn Rand Gets a B minus
Review of The Virtue of Selfishness
You might think it hubris that I, who am so easily distracted by soft blankets and sweet chocolates, would comment on the stern, pure doctrines of Ayn Rand. When it comes to intellectual power, I am little more than a bundle of arbitrary tastes, a decent education, and one missed meal away from a bad temper. You might say that I haven’t proven myself as either a political philosopher or a skilled writer. You would be right. But, if you want to be fair, you should also admit that neither has Ayn Rand, at least not in this book.
We are in many ways alike, Ayn Rand and I: indignant at what is wrong with the human scene, wistful of the world’s repair, but without practicable proposals. In all this, her writing strikes a chord of human sympathy in my dreamer’s heart. On the other hand, it can be hard to sympathize with her, chiefly because she regards all those who disagree with her so uncharitably. Other people, those who are not Objectivists, are conformist, hysterical, or plain stupid. This is especially true of “liberals” and “conservatives,” who, in these essays, are so stylish that they never go anywhere without their scare quotes, for reasons as unexplained as fashion always is. It’s a technique she employs long before the world has heard of Ben Shapiro: vaunt your commitment to rationality, decry your opponents as irrational, and leave it to your audience to decide whose invitation their egos will accept.
And of her rationality, what would I say? Well, think of it this way. Every teacher has had a student who is clever, impassioned, but unformed. Reading these essays reminds me of reading the essays of such a student. (Perhaps, when such students say they are unsure what to do with their careers, I can tell them, “You could always drop out of college with the skills you have right now and become revered as an intellectual by the libertarian movement in the United States.”) Maybe the best way I can write an assessment of Rand is to give the same evaluation I would of such a student. Imagine me, then, red pen in one hand, rejection letters in the other, stress about paying rent in my heart, going over the work of a talented undergraduate, thus:
One thing I like about these essays is the common sense and sound morality that blink through them from time to time. With this comes a decent measure of consistency. For instance, Rand is committed to protecting freedom of speech even if it means she has to allow it to communists, whom she detests.
Her argumentation exhibits the flaws one would expect from someone just entering college, especially a lack of historical knowledge and a conceptual inattention.
Examples of her ignorance of history are plentiful, especially in her essay on racism. She thinks that the northern United States were not racist because they did not practice slavery. She also asserts that, in Europe, racism was strongest in the countries that were least capitalist, and she cites England as the most capitalist and least racist — this within a few years of India’s gaining its independence from a racist empire formed and long controlled by mercantile interests before the government officially took charge, and while apartheid, a legacy of the cape-, gold-, and diamond-fueled rule of Britannia, was still carving South Africa into volatile partitions. It’s fair to expect some of these gaps in her knowledge to be filled once she takes some introductory-level courses in history. As long as she applies herself, they are not cause for worry.
So much for her knowledge of political history. In her discussion of the history of ideas, like many students I have taught and cared for, she has arrived at some thoughts other philosophers have already propounded. Having not read much moral or political philosophy, she has the impression that all of it either appeals to God or to social mores. Thus she thinks of her idea that morality should be based on reason as novel. It is always endearing to see a promising mind aglow with the discovery of some insight. I hope her mind will be fanned rather than damped when she discovers her predecessors in the works of Plato, Locke, Montesquieu, Kant, Bentham, Mill, and others — and when she pursues a closer reading of Aristotle, whom she cites but seems to have misread.
At this stage of her education, such ignorance is nothing to fault her for. As for conceptual inattention, it manifests in different ways.
Sometimes it manifests as a neglect of rather obvious considerations. For instance, she rightly thinks of a government as an organization that maintains a monopoly on force; but she contrasts this with the freedom and equality of a market in which goods are exchanged without coercion, and she does not consider wealth as a source of power and as potential for coercion, especially the case of a wealthy person who has exclusive access to a necessary resource.
Sometimes it manifests as a tendency to simplify problems according to one or two favored conceptual schemata. She often has recourse to the concept of “altruism-collectivism.” It seems clear she has not read Nietzsche, but her attitude bears some similarity to his dislike of the conformist altruism he perceived in his time. Rand puts this concept to work bearing far more theoretical load than it can. She thinks that the belief that we are under obligation to help other people underlies, causes, and can explain a wide variety of phenomena, including Christianity, all of moral philosophy besides her own work, welfarism, moral nihilism, dehumanization, and racism. The case of racism is especially noteworthy. She thinks of racism as a form of group identification. It does not value individuals. So far, so good. The trouble is that, rather than saying every person ought to be valued because of their personhood, she argues that all persons ought to be valued insofar as they are productive and have noteworthy material accomplishments. In other words, what makes racism wrong is that it is not capitalist. Here she is clearly expecting her distinction between “altruism-collectivism” and individualism/egoism/capitalism to do more than it should, to the neglect of other more relevant concepts.
She also has an undergraduate tendency to grandiosity, as when she argues that the ideal life is one in which every moment is tightly controlled by rational deliberation — which is in reality impossible, thank God, would evacuate human life of many crucial pleasures, and sometimes would keep us from doing what’s best. Perhaps the only cure of such grandiosity is a combined education in academic discipline and in a varied and sensitive life.
So much for the content; what of the style? This, to me, is the aspect needing most improvement in these essays. Rand writes with sufficient clarity to make her main points understood, which is a virtue. But we are born in sin, and, while it would be spiteful to number the vices in these pieces, it is worth mentioning their lack of elegance, their neglect of euphony, and the need for greater discretion in selecting metaphor (e.g. she curiously chooses to compare the distinction between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity to the difference between being allowed on a train and being allowed in a first-class cabin — the purpose of a metaphor in political writing is to clarify). Perhaps most worrisome is the lack of irony. Inexpensive polemical satire is occasionally flung at an opponent, but self-deprecation, and indeed all amiable humor, finds no foothold in any of the essays.
On the whole, then, Ayn Rand has a measure of intellectual talent and a passion for philosophical topics that, if nourished by a wholesome diet of great works, and if part of a life nurtured by the sort of caring community she seems reluctant to acknowledge as necessary for a healthy human organism and indispensable to happiness, could grow into a powerful voice bridging both academic and popular philosophy.