The Rand Rage
Everyone's reading Ayn Rand. Have you noticed? The other day the Freakonomics blog wrote about a "recession icon of sorts emerges, wrapped in a Snuggie, puffing on a pipe -- and now with a copy of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged on his lap." Back in January, Stephen Moore fantasized in the Wall Street Journal:
"If only "Atlas" were required reading for every member of Congress and political appointee in the Obama administration. I'm confident that we'd get out of the current financial mess a lot faster."
Sure enough, two months later -- look! Sales of Atlas Shrugged went up AND the stock market rose. Yay, Citibank is living richly again! Is it Rand? Moore explained his thinking: "Some years ago when I worked at the libertarian Cato Institute, we used to label any new hire who had not yet read "Atlas Shrugged" a 'virgin.'" Then what? To pub this in context, Rand's fictional women were routinely flung to the ground by her male heros and defiled or deflowered -- Ahhh, the good 'ole days? Apparently he didn't get the message that Rand abhorred libertarians.
The Movie is Better
I 'd last read "Atlas Shrugged" (1942) and "The Fountainhead" (1957) one summer in high school and found Rand entertaining. To be clear, I wasn't a conservative, ideologically precocious teenager, I'd probably just finished up the Hardy Boys series and was looking for racier stuff. I admit, I wasn't submitting essays to her namesake institute's high school writing contests (all the rage now), -- I read Rand as pure fiction.
My recent dilemma was how to refresh my adult mind on Rand's ideas without adding another 1000+ page book (Atlas Shrugged) to my staggering reading list, albeit a real page turner. Sure, I could have skipped the book and read the reviews. But then I would have risked misinformation, like those who regurgitate PJ O'Rourke's interpretation of "The Wealth of Nations" and think they're reading the real thing.
I reasoned that I could reread the "The Fountainhead" faster. It's a fraction of the size of "Atlas Shrugged" and although its written a decade earlier, it's laden with the same notions. I then stumbled upon "The Fountainhead", the movie. Even better. At 113 minutes, you save hours of reading, and you can multitask while you watch, because the movie is no more than pablum for simpletons.
Beyond efficiency, there's another reason to watch the movie. When you read, your mind puts you in the story. You're standing at the quarry described in "The Fountainhead" (1949) in your 2009 shoes and 2009 hairstyle, with your 2009 global attitudes and 2009 cultural disposition and intelligence. You end up thinking what readers of Atlas Shrugged think these days -- Wow! Atlas Shrugged is just like 2009 -- wasn't Rand clever? You'd then maybe be pre-dispositioned to the same specious comparisons that Stephen Moore made in his WSJ article:
"In one chapter of the book, an entrepreneur invents a new miracle metal -- stronger but lighter than steel. The government immediately appropriates the invention in "the public good." The politicians demand that the metal inventor come to Washington and sign over ownership of his invention or lose everything."
This, Moore says, is "eerily similar" to the banks' dealings with Paulson last year when they "signed a document handing over percentages of their future profits to the government". Really Moore? No. Actually it worked the other way. The government gave the banks the public's money, and the government isn't likely to gain much from those banks.
Consider other examples of Moore's specious reasoning, for instance scientific research. Like many federal institutions, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), funds research at public universities, and eventually those advances get transferred to private industry, which patents and profits from research paid for by government. Arpanet, developed by the Department of Defense, is now the internet and quite lucrative for businesses. Rand's followers, like Moore, should maybe follow Rand's own advice:
"When you look for the source of an historic idea, you must consider philosophic essentials, not the superficial statements or errors that people may offer you. Even the most well-meaning men can misidentify the intellectual roots of their own attitudes."
You can avoid all of this historical misinterpretation by watching "The Fountainhead" yourself. Rand wrote the script and was heavily involved in the editing so you'll have an authentic experience.
Quarry in the Quarry
As you watch the movie you can ask yourself: Despite what Moore and others say, is this a story we want to claim as the bulwark of our economic system? Why was Alan Greenspan such an acolyte? (Picture Greenspan as a little 13 year old) Is it weird that a US Congressmen presents the book "Atlas Shrugged" to departing staff? Is the USA circa 1957 relevant to the USA circa 2009?
Here's a quick synopsis of the movie. The female protagonist of the "The Fountainhead" (1949), "Dominique", rides up on her tall white horse while Howard Roark mans his drill in the quarry, all testosterone and biceps and brawn and pride and drill. Sparks fly from the dysfunctional male/female tension typical of Harlequin romances. Like any bodice ripping potboiler-romance paperback, Dominique and Roark are each other's "quarry" -- but Rand goes the extra mile and sets the story in a quarry too.
Roark is an outcast architect who chooses manual mining labor rather than sacrifice his "ideals" as an architect who designs aesthetically challenging and unpopular buildings. In one scene Roark lets a fellow architect take credit for his drawings. Then Roark finds out the builder altered his plan, gets mad and dynamites the entire complex burning it to the ground. So the 2009 business take away is what? Teamwork is for sissies? Terrorism should be rewarded?
How about when Roarke throws the high falutin' Dominique to the ground in violent, mad lust? So 2009? Or when Roark stands up in front of the jury after his dynamiting and arsenic spree and delivers his big speech on the superiority of "creators". And Roark says of himself and his heroic fellow "creators" :
"The great creators -- the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors -- stood alone against the men of their time. Every new thought was opposed; every new invention was denounced....He held his truth above all things and against all men. He went ahead whether others agreed with him or not, with his integrity as his only banner. He served nothing and no one. He lived for himself. And only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind. Such is the nature of achievement..."
Roark is not so much noble creator, as he is a one man Weather Underground. His narcissistic speech does nothing to explain how anyone benefits from rampant vandalism, how misrepresentation of authorship is good business, or how societies would sustain themselves with such irredeemable selfishness. In reality, back then or in 2009 we would be locking this man up as a felon. But alas, in the movie, the jury acquits him.
Rand Redefined "Creator" to "creator", Disdained Religion
Just as Adam Smith followers rarely mention the "Theory of Moral Sentiments", politicians who adopt Ayn Rand's ideas selectively pick points that they find useful and reject other significant sections of her philosophy, hailing her wisdom only when it supports their agendas.
Rand, a Russian immigrant, thought America's founders had made a big mistake in the Declaration of Independence by saying that men were "endowed 'by their Creator' with certain unalienable rights." So she had Roark redefine the word "creator", and she banished the big "C", so each individual became his own "creator", little "c". That said, though she hated today's libertarians.
In 2009 at least 50% of the population believes in the Creator, big "C". Rand was intolerant not only of this, but of Reagan and the "New Right", who she criticized for mixing religion with politics. She predicted dire consequences for Reagan's embrace of religion in his campaign:
"[R]eligious zeal is merely a variant of irrationalism and the demand for self-sacrifice--and therefore it has to lead to the same result in practice: dictatorship... While claiming to be the defenders of Americanism, their distinctive political agenda is statism....."
"[C]hildren, we are told, should be indoctrinated with state-mandated religion at school. For instance, biology texts should be rewritten under government tutelage to present the Book of Genesis as a scientific theory on par with or even superior to the theory of evolution..."
"What we are seeing is the medievalism of the Puritans all over again, but without their excuse of ignorance....The New Right is not the voice of Americanism. It is the voice of thought control attempting to take over in this country and pervert and undo the actual American revolution....."
Those who see all the parallels between "Atlas Shrugged" and today's banking aren't saying anything about Rand's predictions for teaching religion in schools, a practice that GW Bush remained strategically equivocal about but that conservatives embrace whole-heartedly.
Helping is Futile and Other Anomalies
During the Cold War, the US fought Communism and Socialism, so it seems natural that Rand's writing was popular with politicians and citizens. Marginalized conservatives half a century ago naturally embraced her virulent opposition to Communism, since it fit into the narrative they were building. Now the Randian movement (and conservatives) drudge up other enemies. One such enemy is altruism.
The Simpsons satirized Ayn Rand in "A Streetcar Named Marge" -- where one poster in the "Ayn Rand School for Tots" declares "Helping Is Futile". And they're not joking. When the Asian Tsunami wiped out over 200,000 people across Asia, the Ayn Rand Institute urged western governments not to give aid. Ayn Rand criticized altruism because she predicted in was a slippery slope to Communism.
"the New Right is leading us, admittedly or not, to the same end as its liberal opponents. By virtue of the movement's essential premises, it is supporting and abetting the triumph of statism in this country--and, therefore, of Communism in the world at large."
Ayn Rand ranted about the "New Right" movement that ascended into politics with Reagan, and charged that by accepting of the "New Deal", the Marshall Plan and social programs they were destroying the USA.
Twaddle to Live By?
At first I thought that since "The Fountainhead" movie was old, the age of the movie might be clouding my opinion. But while her book was popular in its day, it's worthwhile to know that she also had voracious critics, who had virtually the same criticism as today's critics. A 1949 New York Times review had only scathing words for the movie: "[A] more curious lot of high-priced twaddle we haven't seen for a long, long time"...."Loaded with specious situations"...."wordy, involved and pretentious"...."not the most brilliant demonstration of logic in pictorial form". The author thought Roark's "creations" were abominable: "his work, from what we see of it, is trash".
By the end of the movie I realized my high school memory of Rand was too complimentary. I'm not movie critic, but "The Fountainhead" would dissuade most from any delusion that Rand has something to offer 2009. Do we really need to recruit "high-priced twaddle" to support modern day economics or policy?
If you read PJ ORourke instead of "Wealth of Nations" to understand history, or Crichton instead of the IPCC climate change report report to understand science, you might also subscribe to Rand's philosophies and encourage today's economic and business minded people to embrace her outdated simplistic idea. But pundits and admirers of Rand's fiction sweep under a gigantic rug all the anachronisms and flaws of "objectivism".
Historians with Atlas Shrugged in their hands convince you Americans are nothing but a lot of individualists and historical winners. They would trace a history that connects today to yesterday, wealth to happiness, to Reagan, to Rand, to the glorious defeat of Communism, to the Invisible Hand, and to Jesus Christ himself. But these are gauzy, fatuous connections, built around tawdry tales like "The Fountainhead".
Why is everyone really touting Rand? Perhaps so that in a down economy they can with a clear conscious, drive by all the food lines and spit on people? Who knows? But if major constituencies and leaders of America continue to embrace Rand's half-century old bodice ripping "philosophy", shouldn't we worry?