Sunday, December 6, 2009

How Ayn Rand Benefits the Libertarian Movement

So I picture a bunch of Wall Street Journal editors sitting around a boardroom and saying to themselves, "Hm. It's hard getting ad revenue these days. We've also discoverd that there are vast numbers of ex-D.C. think tank interns still using five-year-old employer passwords to get to our subscription-only content.* So what can we do to get money out of our readers?"

And some brilliant soul jumps up with, "Let's throw some red meat to libertarian bloggers! That'll get lots of people to click through and look at our ads!"

"How?" asks another. "I mean, Ron Paul's kind of faded from the public consciousness, so we can't do a debate over whether he's good for libertarianism. Maybe start a fight over whether Lochner was rightly decided? Or maybe about the morality of secession and how the Lincoln administration really destroyed federalism?"

"Nah. No libertarians really think that Lincoln destroyed federalism, except for Mises Institute types. And everybody ignores them anyway. Let's start a debate on Ayn Rand's legacy!"

And so I imagine this article on why Ayn Rand is bad for libertarianism resulting from the above colloquy. And, as per the title of this blog, I am taking the red meat.

Scratch this libertarian, and you indeed find an ex-Randian. I've quipped to Pnin that, had I read Rand and George Bernard Shaw in reverse order in the eighth grade, I'd have turned out a socialist. Though I have conservative parents and grew up in a stereotypical red-state environment, my moral inclinations as measured byJonathan Haidt's scale predict that I should be somewhere to the left of Catharine McKinnon. That is, I am inherently the sort of arrogant, intellectually-inclined jerk who has never really cottoned to to Thomas Sowell's constrained vision libertarianism.

So a couple points in response to Wilhelm:

1)I've never really understood the charge that Rand was an "elitist." Her novels are studded with cameos of hard-working, plain-spoken, blue-collar charactes who were anything but moochers. There's a scene in Galt's Gluch in Atlas Shrugged where Dagny remarks to some guy that he has a face like a truck drive, but she knows that he was probably an astrophysicist in the outside world. The gentleman laughs that he was in fact a truck driver on the outside, but he didn't intend to stay one for long. Similarly, there's the ex-Twentieth Century Motor Company worker that Dagny meets on one of her train rides to Colorado, and there are a host of sympathetic low-level Taggart workers with "honest faces" whom we're clearly supposed to like. Conversely, Rand reserved a lot of her worst scorn for conventional intellectual elites. Ellsworth Toohey was a Harvard grad, after all, and Balph Eubank and friends all had fancy intellectual pedigrees.

If you walk away from Rand thinking that she was -- in the words of the vicious Whittaker Chambers review -- commanding the average-hard working citizen "To a gas chamber, go!" -- you're not reading Rand carefully enough.

2)Pnin and I have discussed occasionally why Rand grabbed me, but not him. (He's one of those rare libertarians for whom it didn't begin with Ayn Rand.) I read Rand as a thirteen-year-old stuck in an intellectually uninspiring environment, as the kind of teenager who had romantic visions of doing great things, who was constantly frustrated about being stuck with a peer group lacking in imagination and ambition. As the intro to The Fountainhead put it :"Whatever their future, at the dawn of their lives, men seek a noble vision of man’s nature and of life’s potential.

I tried re-reading Rand one summer in college. I'd found an interesting and ambitious peer group by then, and so I couldn't say that I felt the same kind of pain as acutely. Rand no longer held quite the same visceral appeal. Pnin might be a bigger fish (in the sense of being more intellectually talented) than I am, but he was swimming in a bigger pond as a kid. So I suspect that's why he didn't find Rand as intuitively emotionally appealing. But there are thousands and thousands of big teenage fish in small ponds scattered throughout America's small towns and even big city working class communities. Based on Nathaniel Branden's memoir, I understand that he was one in working-class Ottawa, as was his eventual wife Barbara Branden.

While we're rare in any particular community, we are numerous in the aggregate. Rand's hardly the first novelist to appeal to us -- Willa Cather's Song of the Lark, which I've posted on here before, is equally attractive to the same demographic. So are some of the quintessentially American Horatio Alger novels, which admittedly feel far more dated than Rand. Ditto passages of Jane Eyre, which I read and loved at about the same age. So I suspect that we account for much of Rand's popularity. Bully for Rand for trapping so many of us in the libertarian movement. Hayek and Sowell, with all of their emphasis on epistemic humility and the knowledge problem, just can't reel in a certain type of teenager as well.

*Not that yours truly has ever done such a thing, or knows anyone who would have...

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