Friday, October 26, 2007

Professor Cringed (A Note on Ayn Rand)

One of the weirder aspects of Alan Greenspan's life was his association with Ayn Rand. In his excellent NY Times review of Greenspan's memoir, Michael Kinsley writes:
Freedom. For this proud square, this eager conformist and joiner of the establishment, freedom is nevertheless the supreme value of his life. Freedom and, he would add, rationality. In the early 1950s he joined the inner circle of Ayn Rand, the author of ''The Fountainhead'' and ''Atlas Shrugged,'' whose philosophy, known as Objectivism, was an extreme form of libertarianism that actually celebrated selfishness and greed. Many young brainiacs of dorkish tendencies go through an Ayn Rand period (her books are very popular at Microsoft). But Greenspan credits Rand as ''a stabilizing force in my life'' and was ''a regular at the weekly gatherings at her apartment'' through the early 1960s. She stood at his side when he was sworn in as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in 1974, and they ''remained close until she died in 1982.''
Occasionally I encounter students who are going through an "Ayn Rand period" - its just a phase, I remind myself. One I fortunately managed to avoid (I was more inclined towards Leon Trotsky), though one of my high school friends did make me read "The Fountainhead."

For Greenspan, though, it was more than just a phase. While I can excuse a central banker with questionable taste in literature, I always found it troubling to have a bona fide acolyte - a man who could say "objectivism" with a straight face - in such a powerful position. Lest I smirk too much, Paul Krugman's latest column is a reminder of the real consequences of Greenspan's worldview.

To the students I say: if you must be libertarian, its time to graduate to Hayek and "The Road to Serfdom," which is actually a good book.

As my for high school friend - he made it to the other side, and is now an attorney with a federal regulatory agency in Washington (take that, Ms Rand!).


Anonymous said...

I had a Rand phase myself, for about 9 months around age 15. Embarrasing, but at least I have good company.

I too work regulating large businesses.

Not was Greenspan close to Rand, but he contributed several chapters to her book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, one of them on the importance of the gold standard as opposed to fiat money, which is "theft."

Bill C said...

Thanks. Wow. I didn't know that! That's both ironic and scary.

James Killus said...

I think that Greenspan joined the Rand circle for the same reason he played in a jazz band: to meet women.

Some of us took to hanging out at science fiction conventions for similar reasons, at least after Star Trek brought in a lot more women. And it is worth noting that Atlas Shrugged is science fiction

gretchen sue said...

First of all, how do you have time to write so many blog posts? I had no idea you were such an avid blogger. I'm impressed; I should be more diligent in keeping up my blog. I don't even remember the last time I wrote something. I spend too much time on facebook haha.

Anyway...Ayn Rand. Well, I would say I find it quite interesting that you have such strong opinions about Objectivism and Ayn Rand's books, when you have hardly read anything by her at all. Did you even finish The Fountainhead? I know that you haven't read Atlas Shrugged, and I would be surprised if you have read Anthem, We the Living, The Virtue of Selfishness, or any of her other non-fiction books. I doubt you have done much research on Objectivism either. Perhaps you don't necessarily enjoy Ayn Rand's literature and philosophy, but I don't think you make a very good opinion leader on the topic seeing that you haven't really read much of her work.

Like I said to you earlier, it's rather revealing that you say your friend "made" you read The Fountainhead. The entire book is about individualism and living for yourself and your goals regardless of what others say or attempt to do to you. I wouldn't expect someone to like such a book when the main reason why he read the book was to appease someone else. Howard Roark,the main character in The Fountainhead, never compromised his values and goals even when others criticized him. I admire the character's tenacity, boldness, and self-confidence. One of my favorite parts of the whole book is when Howard was in the dean's office about to be expelled because of his "extreme" architecture designs. He refused to let the Dean convince him to change his style and stood up for himself unwaveringly. I adore the following quote:
Dean: "Do you mean to tell me that you're thinking seriously of building that way, when and if you are an architect?"
Howard: "Yes."
Dean: "My dear fellow, who will let you?"
Howard: "That's not the point. The point is, who will stop me?"
I love that line. It really depicts what the entire book is about. Why is that such a bad philosophy to live by?

The problem readers have with The Fountainhead and other Ayn Rand works is the extremeness of the language. I often think people take the words so literally that they completely miss the point of the book. Literature should never be taken word for word literally. There is always a message and a purpose behind the choice of words and the position of the words.

I also think that because Ayn Rand's style is not very typical of western literature, readers feel uncomfortable with it. She personifies angles, edges, and lines. The words are not lyrical; they're abrupt. Most western literature focuses on words that give a feeling of smoothness, and harmony.

Scenes such as the one where Howard detonates a building can be thought of as an act of terrorism if you take the scene literally. But that wasn't the point of the chapter and the scene. The point was that he would never stand for someone belittling his work or misrepresenting his work in an unethical way. He would "fight" back with all of his strength to stand for his beliefs and values. I find it a bit intellectually immature if readers cannot look beyond words and see the blatant symbolism. Rand did not just write a story without a message. And the message she wanted to convey was not to be a horrible and immoral person that destroys property. The message was to live by your values and beliefs no matter who tries to hold you back or destroy you.

To say that I'm going through an "Ayn Rand period" is a bit patronizing. You make it sound as though I don't have control over what I think and appreciate. I would never read her books and casually agree with what they say.I put a lot of thought into what I read, and I understand how to put ideas into context with my life.
I've read most of her fiction and some of her non-fiction. I've also read critiques about Rand. I've read both sides of the story, and I know where I stand on the issues she raises. It's not a "phase" of my life.

When it comes to Alan Greenspan, I'm not sure why you're so shocked he follows Objectivism. Economics focuses on the idea of people acting rationally. Saying that someone acts with rational self-interest is completely in line with economic theory as well as Ayn Rand's philosophy. She may use words people don't like such as "selfish," "greed," and "arrogance" to explain her point (By the way, I think she does a good job re-defining these words in Atlas Shrugged beyond the context society uses them.), but when it comes down to it she's basically talking about rational thinking. Perhaps you are surprised that he actually followed the Objectivist institution. But would you have even written anything about him if he strictly followed fundamentalist Christianity? What if he strictly adhered to the messages of Pat Robertson and Billy Graham? Would you have questioned his beliefs if he was an Orthodox Jew? And what is the difference anyway? Are monotheistic religions any less extreme? Or is it that more people follow them without question? In the Hebrew Scriptures its considered moral and admirable that Abraham was willing to burn his only son, Isaac, to death because God talked to him and said it would be a good thing to do. How is that any less extreme? We are simply used to those stories because we are raised from a baby to believe that's a good message. Of course, we could look at the story and interpret the message as being that people should follow God's wishes even when it's very difficult. But how is interpreting bible stories any different than interpreting Ayn Rand's literature? People are just more comfortable with Bible stories for numerous reasons that I won't bring up here.

I don't think that people who act on Ayn Rand's philosophy are all insane. Making blanket statements about people that enjoy her literature and find her philosophy intriguing and insightful is careless. You could argue that being a "hard core" objectivist like Greenspan is crazy. But, it's certainly no crazier than taking the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, Book of Mormon etc. literally. In fact, I think some of the messages in those books are much more harmful and extreme than anything Ayn Rand has ever said.

Okay, I feel like drinking wine and watching a movie we can chat about this more some other time or we can chat about something else.

Bill C said...

Thanks for the comment.

I'm sorry if the post sounded too condescending - I was trying to be funny (and, of course, as a professor, I should be a little bit condescending). But, as Kinsley notes, it is a common thing for high school/college-age people to get interested in - as an icebreaker, I used to ask my students their favorite book on the first day of class, and I would occasionally get "The Fountainhead" or "Atlas Shrugged."

I am guilty as charged for having only read "The Fountainhead" - but isn't 720 pages enough? Yes, I did read the whole thing - and actually, I recall that I enjoyed reading it, which is not the same thing as thinking its is either good literature or good philosophy.

The good part of Rand is that it is thought-provoking - I have no real problem with people reading and thinking about her books (though the opportunity cost is high).

The literary merits (or lack thereof) are subjective - so I'll refrain from saying more (aside from admitting that there are things I like that others might find questionable..).

What bothers me about Rand are the implications - I would hate to live in a world where people really followed her philosophy. Unfortunately, in some ways it seems like I do. Greenspan's decisions to support the Bush tax cuts and not to do more to regulate subprime lending (follow the Krugman link in the post) reflect his Rand-influenced worldview. More broadly, when I look at things like misguided attempts to privatize and/or destroy public services, I see "free market" ideology gone way too far. When I see the CEO of Merrill Lynch collecting $159 million in severance pay, I think we have too much acceptance for selfishness and greed.

Ayn Rand is a bit funny to me, because of my own personal experience. I don't know how much influence her ideas really have, but to the extent that they do, I think they contribute to some of the worst aspects of our society.

gretchen sue said...

"When I see the CEO of Merrill Lynch collecting $159 million in severance pay, I think we have too much acceptance for selfishness and greed."

You obviously haven't read more of her books or you would know that this doesn't fall in line with what she calls selfishness and greed.

gretchen sue said...

You know, now that I think about it. This isn't really worth debating with you because you really don't know what her philosophy is. You haven't done any research on it, and you haven't read her books. The Fountainhead does not cover most of her philosophy, and certainly doesn't make anyone an expert.

I think what you do know is that you lean more toward the liberal side than you do the conservative side, and you don't like libertarianism.

In addition...

"I don't know how much influence her ideas really have, but to the extent that they do, I think they contribute to some of the worst aspects of our society."

You can't just say this. You need to back it up with real examples. What are the worst aspects of society? Tax cuts? Politically charged people? Misguided policy? Stan O'Neil? And if these are what you think the worst aspects of society are...we are very different people. And, I would also say that these aspects of society are not direct results of objectivism. But to talk more about that with you, you would need to read more about objectivism beyond a newspaper column or tv clip. But I really don't expect you to because I know you have better things to do than respond to my blog posts haha.

You are right that she promotes libertarianism. But again, she wrote her philosophy after her family's business was nationalized in Russia and her family lost everything and started to starve. The entire country was promised prosperity if everyone would willingly undergo unnecessary constraints. Aaaaand the prosperity never came.

You may be surprised to know that Rand said her philosophy would not be applicable for all time. I think the libertarian aspect of her philosophy was clearly because of what she went through in Russia. I think other aspects of her philosophy are much more powerful than the libertarian part such as valuing self-esteem, standing up for yourself, and taking responsibility for your actions(just to name a few). These are the aspects that people can utilize daily.

Maybe I don't look into her libertarianism as much because I don't really get into politics. I don't get too hung up on the conservative/liberal debate. I don't like to label myself one or the other. I take each issue at hand, evaluate it, and form my opinion based on my thoughts and research. I would never blindly say yes or no to an issue based on libertarianism or any other ism. Plus, from my experience in Washington DC, I realized that debating politics typically yields frustration rather than solutions.

So anyway, maybe we will come up with something new to debate sometime.

Bill C said...

So, I can't form an opinion of Rand based on reading one of her two major works? That's a bit like saying one can't criticize Marxism unless one's read volumes 2 and 3 of Capital.

And that's not precisely what she meant by selfishness and greed? Perhaps not, but that's reminiscent of the argument that the Soviet system is not really what Karl Marx meant by Communism (and there's definitely truth in that), but I think we must also consider ideas as they are implemented in the world, not just in some idealized form.

If Ayn Rand was just a cheerleader for individualism and self-esteem, that would be one thing, but I think that's far too benign an interpretation. The Fountainhead portrayed society as a conspiracy of the mediocre to stifle and put down genius. No doubt Rand's fans identify with Howard Roark, the hero standing up to stifling convention (and this is why her work no doubt particularly appeals to people with recent experience of high school). But we couldn't live in a world of Howard Roarks - no buildings would get built (and even one did, someone would blow it up in a fit of self-righteousness). So who among us gets to be Howard Roark? It seems that Rand's answer is that the rest of society (and the government, of course) should just get out of the way while a few genius ubermenschen like Roark do their thing - their superiority entitles them to do what they want (blow up buildings, etc) - and everyone else should just admire them, like the jury that acquits Roark. That's what I found most repellant about The Fountainhead when I read it (no doubt I'm misinterpreting it, and if only I read a few thousand more pages of Rand's writing, I'd grasp the subtlety of her thought...).

Shantell said...

Interesting to know.

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