Ayn Rand Shrugged:Time to Reject a Dangerous Doctrine

Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, has remained near the top of the best-seller list over the years -- to my amazement.  I knew that it has long enjoyed a cult following as a sort of CEO’s bible, inspiring each new generation of libertarian political conservatives.  Now it seems that the gospel according to Ayn Rand is spreading beyond the Tea Party and MAGA conservatives to the parasitical “masses” that she denounces.  Of course, the recent movie based on the book probably also helped sales.  But what does this say about Ayn Rand, and what does this say about us?

The first thing to know about her is that she was an embittered émigré from Communist Russia.  She saw the totalitarian state as an enemy of the human spirit.  So far, so good.  But she went to the other extreme and became, in effect, an anti-democratic elitist – a kind of modern, capitalist equivalent of those who, over many centuries, have justified the privileges (and property) of the landed aristocracy and denigrated the unwashed peasants.  In other words, the rich deserve their wealth and power.

In Rand’s modern version of this self-serving ideology, all human progress depends on the anointed few who have talent and creativity.  In her novels and her so-called "Objectivist” philosophy, she idealized the creative genius and promoted an ethic of “rational selfishness.” She rejected any obligation to the “moochers,” and “spongers,” and “parasites” who benefit from their work.  Government, moreover, is seen by her as a tool of the masses that suppresses the liberty of the creative class.  (It is a kind of flip-side to Marxism, where the state is seen as a “handmaiden” of the capitalist class.)

All this culminates in Rand’s peon in Atlas Shrugged to the deserving elite, where a mysterious figure, John Galt, leads in organizing a strike by the creative few (including the captains of industry!), which ultimately brings down the oppressive state and leads to a libertarian, free (capitalist) market society.  The progressive journal Progress Report calls Rand’s work “a frightful concoction of hyper-egotism, power-worship, and anarcho-capitalism.”

Actually, it’s much worse than that; it’s totally calloused and mean-spirited. While Rand idealized the rich and powerful and endowed them with virtues they often don’t have, she was hostile to all the rest of society.  She opposed all welfare, all help for the poor, all infrastructure spending, and proposed that taxes be made voluntary (which will produce many free riders, of course).  Government should be limited to protecting the laws (especially property laws) and national defense.  In an interview many years ago with Mike Wallace on CBS, she declared that altruism is evil and selfishness is a virtue, and anyone who succumbs to weakness or frailty is unworthy of love.

This is in fact profoundly immoral.  Ayn Rand and her true believers, who include many of the wealthy and powerful in our society, share an ethic that is the very antithesis of the values of every recognized religion, not to mention the Golden Rule, the one ethical principle that is found in virtually every human society (with a few dysfunctional exceptions).  More important, it does violence in various ways to our evolutionary heritage and our biological “human nature”.  The science of human nature – not to mention the reality of how any organized human society works -- contradicts her values.  Her philosophy is deeply, irretrievably subversive to ancient idea of a “social contract”.  

It would require a Ph.D. dissertation to fully deconstruct Ayn Rand’s dystopian ideal.  Here are a few key points:

*  Rand’s idolization of the creative genius (epitomized by architect Howard Roark in her novel The Fountainhead) is deeply flawed.  Genius is a much-overrated virtue.  Good ideas come from many quarters, often from the bottom up or as an outgrowth of experience down in the trenches.  Many so-called “geniuses” turn out to be crackpots or charlatans and faddists who later fade from the scene.  More important, most successful innovations these days are the product of many contributions.  A “new idea” is only the beginning.  As for your average CEO, he/she is much more likely to be an overpaid bureaucrat.  Finally, as Malcolm Gladwell showed so convincingly in his book, Outliers, most of the great success stories these days are due to having unique opportunities (the right time and place), having key information, and a uniquely favored, supportive environment – from family background to schools, communities and cultures. 

* Rand’s idealization of “free markets” is also fundamentally at odds with reality, as many critics have noted.  Markets are unavoidably distorted by differences in power and wealth, by gaming and deception, and by the many ways in which a system can become a rigged game that favors an entrenched and perhaps corrupt few.  “Merit” is only one of many reasons for the way in which power and wealth are distributed.

* Rand’s view of how a complex economy works is also naïve.  Modern societies cannot be divided into two monolithic classes – the creative elite and the dependent, parasitical “masses” who exploit them.  A complex economy consists of an inextricable network of cooperation and interdependencies – and reciprocities.  Most of us contribute in one way or another in return for the benefits (and rights) that we receive in return. 

* Rand’s elitism is deeply anti-democratic. It is totally at odds with the principle of political equality, the fundamental value underlying democratic societies.  She would curtail the right of the “masses” to use government as an instrument of the “general will” (to borrow a term from Rousseau) and to act collectively to advance the “general welfare,” as opposed to a Howard Roark’s welfare.  

*  Finally, Rand’s brand of libertarianism is profoundly unfair in terms of the three fairness precepts elucidated in my 2011 book The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice – namely, equality, equity and reciprocity.  Indeed, the term “social justice” is not even in Rand’s working vocabulary.  She would deny the principle of equality in relation to our universal “basic needs” (which are biological imperatives for all of us); she is uncritical about equity, “or merit” (geniuses are not the only ones who contribute to our society), and there is no place for reciprocity, or reciprocal obligations. The science of human nature teaches that in every society there are a large number of moral eunuchs – perhaps one-quarter of us – who are more or less fairness “challenged.”  A society is in deep trouble when these egocentrics have the lion’s share of the power and wealth, with no real constraints, and are imbued with an ideology that justifies their self-interests and encourages exploitative behavior.

Perhaps the most radical aspect of Ayn Rand’s political views is her contempt for the law.  In effect, she sets the rights of her creative geniuses (and captains of industry) above the law, and above the legally recognized rights of others, including especially those “second raters”, “parasites”, and repulsive “masses” that she often denigrates.  

Consider the case of Rand’s defiantly heroic character, architect Howard Roark, in her novel The Fountainhead.  In this story, Roark, who is an outcast in his profession because of his unconventional designs, agrees (secretly) to help a mediocre old school friend, Peter Keating, to win a large housing development contract, on the condition that there must be no changes at all to Roark’s innovative plans.  Keating agrees and, in fronting on the project for Roark, dutifully inserts a “no change” clause into his contract with the client/owner.  But as the buildings go up, the owner violates the contract by unilaterally making some cosmetic changes, and Keating acquiesces.  So, Roark sneaks onto the project site one night and blows up all the buildings.  Then, after confessing to the act, he makes a long-winded philosophical justification to the court.  Here is a brief excerpt: 

Nothing is given to man on earth…He can survive…by the independent work of his own mind or as a parasite fed by the minds of others….The basic need of the creator is independence…To the creator, all relations with men are secondary…. the creator is the man who stands alone….All that proceeds from man’s independent ego is good.  All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil… The first right on earth is the right of the ego.  Man’s first duty is to himself…His moral law is to do what he wishes, provided his wish does not depend primarily upon other men….The only good which men can do to one another and the only statement of their proper relationship is – hands off! ...Civilization is a progress toward a society of privacy…Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.

Guess what?  Even though Roark has confessed to demolishing the buildings, the jury acquits him!   This is really perverse.  Roark’s grievance was with his friend.  He had no contract with the owner whose property he destroyed, and no legal claim against him.  It was Keating who failed to insist upon and defend the “no change” contract clause.  Roark’s recourse was to bring a lawsuit against Keating.  But, according to Rand, Roark was not bound to act in accordance with the law, or the principle of punishing only the culprit, or even respecting property rights.  And neither, it seems, was the judge and the jury that absolved him!  (Indeed, why was there a jury?)   Even as fiction, this is frankly absurd.  (A similar trampling of the law occurs in Atlas Shrugged.) 

Atlas Shrugged vs. The Fair Society

In one respect, my book, The Fair Society, compares favorably with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. My book has a five-star rating on Amazon.com while hers has only four stars.  Of course, I have only one review. She has 2,312.  My book is currently at 17,000 plus in Amazon sales and 68th among non-fiction “professional” books.  Not bad. But Ayn Rand’s book is 73rd in overall sales and second among all fiction.  That’s pretty impressive.  What’s going on here? 

In fact, Ayn Rand’s gospel of selfishness is more than a cult.  It has become a secular religion with ultimately sinister implications.  Indeed, its prime directive – that the pursuit of self-interest should be our only obligation in life -- is the very antithesis of every major religion and ethical system.  It is a modern-day example of the view, tracing back to the Sophists and Epicureans in ancient Greece, that the “elite” in any society  have a special entitlement to do whatever is in their own self-interest, so long as they don’t harm others (a vague restriction that is mostly ignored in practice) and have no duty to provide for the parasitical “masses” (AKA “spongers” and “moochers”).  Rand’s sophistry is even hostile to the notions of fairness and “justice,” much less the Golden Rule.  It’s profoundly anti-democratic and it serves as a justification for the ever-increasing concentration of income and wealth in our society and the spreading wasteland of poverty.  Rand even rejects the rule of law where the elite are concerned.

In The Fair Society, merit (or equity) is only one of three fairness precepts that apply to everyone in a society.  Our “prime directive” is to provide for the basic needs of all of our people – the biological imperatives.  In this we are all essentially equal and have an equal (social) right.  Reciprocity, an obligation to contribute proportionately in return for the benefits we receive from society, is also vitally important.  Equity, or “just deserts”, is also important, but it is hedged by the legitimate claims that others have as well. 

Ayn Rand’s moral stance is actually subversive.  In effect, she sets the rights of her creative individuals above the law, and above the legally recognized property rights of others, including especially those “second raters”, “parasites”, and repulsive “masses” that she often denigrates. An elitist, anti-democratic, socially hostile ideology may serve the self-interests of the few who are at the top very well.  How the rest of us could be duped by such a dysfunctional philosophy is beyond me.  Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is a dangerous doctrine -- a poison in the bloodstream of the body politic.


Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


Comments Join The Discussion