Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Who Was Ayn Rand?

In 2006, on the eve of the subprime mortgage crisis, Alan Greenspan left his job as chairman of the United States Federal Reserve, after twenty years of service. In a speech given a year earlier, Greenspan had praised the rise in the subprime mortgage industry as the right kind of market response for the financial services industry.

Alan Greenspan was a close friend of Ayn Rand, and a close follower of her philosophy. Vitriolic conservative talk show host, Rush Limbaugh is also a follower of Ayn Rand. So is arch-conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Republican Presidential contender Ron Paul. Who was Ayn Rand?

She was perhaps the most influential American intellectual in the late twentieth century. Ayn Rand was a novelist and a philosopher. Her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, was considered the second most influential book after the Bible in the United States in the 1990's. This book, first published in 1957 is a perennial best seller. Part novel, part philosophical treatise, Atlas Shrugged is about a group of industrialists who set up a free market economy based on the gold standard, in a hiding place deep in the Rocky Mountains. The industrialists break away from the United States economy because excessive government regulation is stifling their creativity.

Ayn Rand was born in Russia and lived through the Russian Revolution as a teenager. She went to University in the Soviet Union and then moved to the United States in the mid 1920's. Rand hated communism and believed passionately in individual rights, private property, and laissez-faire capitalism. She was an militant atheist and also hated Christianity. She died in 1982, but her influence in American politics lives on.

Rand's philosophy, which she called “Objectivism”, is based on the idea that humans can gain objective knowledge from reality. Morality is objective if it can be based on those values that serve to preserve and enhance one's life. She argued that selfishness rather than altruism was correct morally because “man's own happiness is the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” Altruism was wrong because it was “suicidal”, it encouraged people to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.

Ayn Rand believed that capitalism is the most ideal form of human society because it gives individuals the right to pursue their own interests through ownership of private property. She disagreed with any government interference with the economy, and argued that government should not be in the business of helping others. Only individuals should help others based on their own free choice. In 1964 she opposed the civil rights act because it violated individual rights to private property.

The fatal flaw in Ayn Rand's philosophy is her epistemology. Knowledge cannot be objective because objective reality is not attainable by humans. All human knowledge is fallible and thus open to improvement. Any model of reality will be fallible because we have to oversimplify reality in order to fit things into concepts. Declaring one's own ideas infallible leads to excluding competing systems of thought, some of which may be valid. This means that you close yourself off from any evidence that might weaken or disprove your position. Then the question is, how can you learn from experience?

The “free market” is an abstraction, a conceptual model that exists because of certain assumptions, such as perfect knowledge and perfect mobility. These assumptions are violated by the real world. Hence, basing moral philosophy on them leads to critical errors.

No matter what happened to the American economy: The Great Depression, the saving and loans fiasco, the subprime mortgage melt-down – all three of which followed the crucial relaxation of financial regulations – people like Alan Greenspan refuse to see the evidence that unregulated markets lead to financial disaster.

Followers of Ayn Rand's “Objectivism”, like Rush Limbaugh, waste a lot of time denying the existence of global warming and denying that there is a problem with anything but environmentalism itself. The evidence says otherwise. By closing their “objective” system from contrary evidence and ruling out most forms of government intervention they have helped to drastically reduce the tools available to build capitalist solutions to environmental and financial problems. The economist's toolbox will remain empty until and unless there is a real change in the American political system.


  1. The fatal flaw in Ayn Rand's philosophy is her epistemology. Knowledge cannot be objective because objective reality is not attainable by humans.

    Why not? And: Are you sure that's an objective fact?

    All human knowledge is fallible and thus open to improvement.

    Ayn Rand did not disagree that men are fallible. There would be no need for epistemology, or any method to gain knowledge if they weren't.

    Declaring one's own ideas infallible leads to excluding competing systems of thought, some of which may be valid. This means that you close yourself off from any evidence that might weaken or disprove your theory. Then how can you learn from experience?

    Ayn Rand believed certainty is possible, which is what you really seem to be arguing against. Fallibility does not preclude certainty. Again, it means simply that a specific method is needed in order to reach valid conclusions. If you have followed that method scrupulously and looked at all the relevant evidence, then you can be certain.

    Are scientists who have studied Darwin and subsequent evidence on evolution wrong when they refuse to consider the "evidence" of creationists?

    Certainty grounded in observation and rigorous logic is not a bad thing. It is the goal of a normal, mentally healthy person.

  2. By closing their “objective” system from contrary evidence and ruling out most forms of government intervention they have helped to drastically reduce the tools available to build capitalist solutions to environmental and financial problems.

    Objectivists advocate thinking in principles because they are a valuable and necessary tool to deal with the plethora of concrete situations men have to deal with.

    Yes, principles automatically exclude a wide range of possible actions, but when properly formed, this is a good thing.

    Once you have looked at the nature of man (who needs freedom in order to think, live, and flourish) and the nature of government (which is a means of wielding force against men), and look at the history of men and governments over milennia, you can validly conclude that it is always bad for government to interfere in the activities of men that do not involve force or fraud.

    Thinking and acting on a rationally formed principle is not a closed-minded refusal to look at relevant evidence; it's using one's mind to the fullest, distilling your knowledge into powerful (because true and broadly-applicable) tools for living successfully.

    If you think Objectivist principles are wrong, you ought to argue against them and present the contrary evidence you say exists. Attacking the very goal of gathering and considering evidence -- arriving at true principles -- and the very idea that certainty is possible puts one outside the realm of rational discourse.

    And really, who is the one ignoring evidence? The man who rigorously examines the fundamental nature of things and the examples across centuries and arrives at a principle? Or the one who denies the need for such a process or ignores it once complete, and demands that you "pragmatically" consider a narrow out-of-context instance in isolation, irrespective of all the evidence that has come before?

  3. First off Rush Limbaugh is not a follower of Ayn Rand and its a stretch to say Ron Paul is.

    Second, your argument against her epistemology is wrong as well. Objective reality is attainable by humans. Just because man is fallible doesn't means he is wrong all the time. Man is capable of error and he is capable of accuracy.

    Lastly your argument is a glaring contradiction. If man cannot obtain objective knowledge than how can you assert that man cannot attain objective knowledge? You argument in essence says I objectively know that you can't objectively know anything.

    You state, "Knowledge cannot be objective because objective reality is not attainable by humans."

    Do you know that objectively? How could you? See the contradiction?

  4. I'm not a philosopher, but in saying that because we can't know everything about everything at all times means we shouldn't believe anything we know just doesn't make sense. We don't know everything about the stars in the sky--should we then discount the idea of stars at all? Are you saying that because we are human we should give up on the idea that we can ever know anything?

    We will always discover new information, but that doesn't mean the old information is wrong. It also doesn't mean that we cannot trust the old information. We certainly can form wonderfully accurate conclusions about the world around us that are always becoming more accurate as we learn more.

    I just don't understand some philosophers. They will dismiss the entire world while they live in it and pay bills and insist that we can't possibly know anything as they work with knowledge they themselves have gained and proven to be valid day after day in their ordinary lives. How can one trust someone living with such contradictions?

  5. Mark, thanks for your comments.
    We don't know the truth. We can try to approach the truth - the scientific method works well because it has rigerous methods and above all because of continual peer review. Every theory is subject to criticism from peers.
    But we can never be certain because there is not a one-to -one correspondence between our concepts and reality. Reality is infinitely multifaceted, whereas our concepts are always simplifications of that reality.
    Take your two examples: the nature of man and government. You say man needs freedom in order to think, live, and flourish. I say humans are fallible, therefore they must be open to other points of view. Two definitions of "man", that treat different aspects of multifaceted reality.
    You say government is a means of weilding force against man. I say government is a tool for providing public goods and eliminating public bads. Two definitions of government that treat different aspects of reality.

  6. Anonymous, thanks for replying, albeit anonymously. Certainty is something psychological. I feel certain about what I say here and so do you but that's not to say that either of us is right. There is no way we can prove our theories. But we can refute them with enough strong evidence.
    Different models of the world are different ways of simplifying. The trick is to not to leave out the important stuff. If we believe that we have certain truth we will not be open to improvement. We will not "see" evidence that puts our position into serious question.
    Here's an example: Objectivists don't see the evidence of global warming because it's a problem that cannot be solved without massive government intervention and international cooperation. This contradicts their definition of good government.
    Meanwhile, the rest of the world sees global warming as a huge threat. Your "objective" position makes the idea of a vast left-wing conspiracy amongst international scientists more likely than the actuality of human caused global warming. But to everyone else, your scientific conspiracy idea is laughable.

  7. Kim, thanks for your reply. Of course we should believe what we know is true. You are right that we cannot function without doing this. But I believe one thing and you believe something different. How do we determine who is really right? There is no sure way of doing this.
    We will get a lot further if we test our knowledge against the world and against the arguments of others. But if we believe we have the absolute truth how do we know that? You cannot prove knowledge you can only disprove it. That's how we learn. Of course we also learn from imitation of what's worked before. But what's worked before doesn't always work in the future. Outside conditions, like the weather, change.

    To be human is to be fallible. We are always contradicting ourselves. We contain multitudes, We are not simple. Read Walt Whitman dude.

  8. "We should believe what we know is true...you cannot prove knowledge you can only disprove it." So you can't know anything? Or you cannot convince someone else of what is known? I had always thought that you can't prove a negative but you're saying you can't prove a positive. I can know something through my senses and every human being has senses. We can all know that the sun is yellow, changes colors during sunsets and sunrises, it might be hidden by clouds, and may even be blocked by the moon. It seems like proof to me.

    If I see the sun come up everyday, and everyone who's ever written anything from the beginning of written history has seen the sun come up everyday, and physicists who study such things tell me the sun is going to come up everyday for billions of years, then I would say that we know the sun is going to come up. The professional philosophers may say we can't be sure if it's the same atoms, or that the sun could be gone because we wouldn't know about it for 8 minutes, or that I didn't actually ever wake up and it's all a dream, or it disappears when I close my eyes, or my eyes don't work right and that sun looks absolutely nothing like what every human being sees. I say we know that they are wrong. You can believe that the sun may not come up tomorrow until the cows come home and it's not going to wipe out all of human history or the laws of physics, or that my eye doctor tells me there's nothing wrong with my vision. I am infallible on that point.

    Let's face it. That example of the weather is really phony. The weather can change because that is what weather is. It's the definition. A rock is not weather. A rock can erode, it can break after being hit, it might change from limestone to lime, but that's all in what we know rocks are. That's not the same as saying it's going to be sitting there one day and then, 'poof,' it's gone the next.

    Part and parcel of knowing something is knowing how much we know of that thing. Twenty years ago I knew that every tree had green leaves in the summer until some of the them turned brown in the fall. Then I saw a tree with purple leaves in the summer. Guess what? I now know that most trees have green leaves in the summer and that the Japanese Maple has purple leaves. So what I know about trees, I am certain of--including knowing the limitations of that definition. If someone were to tell me that there's a red and white candy-striped tree leaf in New Guinea, I'd still call him a liar. Then he can show me a leaf and I'll check to see if it was painted. If it wasn't, I've learned some more and I'll probably owe him some money and an apology. It's not like I don't know anything, or even enough, about trees just because I might learn something new.

    I totally and completely disagree that we are always contradicting ourselves. Even the most profound discoveries of science have never contradicted prior discoveries. They've led to refining theory and an ever fuller understanding of ultimate reality, but a desk is still a desk even though we know it's made up of mostly space.

    Why read Walden? I'm betting it's more of the same stuff shoveled out by someone who's never had to draw conclusions in a lab or prove to their manager why changing the production line will reduce manufacturing time. As a people, we would be still be living in caves if we didn't know that we can know.

    People who actually believe that the sun might not be there tomorrow or that the world really looks like a Salvador Dali painting and we just can't see it must be miserable all the time. It must be awful to insist at all times that anything at all could change. Now I feel sorry for those guys.

  9. Just because we don't have logically certain knowledge doesn't mean we can't convince people. We can convince people if we have good arguments and use relevant examples. The subprime meltdown happened because regulations were relaxed. Global warming is caused by the increasing emissions of carbon dioxide by human beings. I find those convincing arguments. I might be wrong. The subprime meltdown may have been caused by too much government intervention in the mortgage markets Global warming may be caused by the sun. Most scientists don't think so, but they could be wrong.
    There are more or less convincing arguments but no perfect arguments about reality because there is a not a one-to -one correspondence between concepts and reality. Nobody's arguing about whether the sun will come up tomorrow except the rare individual. But some people are arguing about the weather and about climate.

    You think you've got the objective truth, but you are rejecting everything that contradicts it and by doing that you're preventing yourself from learning from your mistakes. Oh, but you have the objective truth so that must mean you never make mistakes. Kinda tempts you, doesn't it.
    When I say we contradict ourselves I mean that as human beings we contradict ourselves. We contain multitudes. It's in Walt Whitman, not Walden. "leaves of grass" is a book of poetry written in the late nineteenth century by Walt Whitman. Google it, if you dare, Mwa ha ha.