Friday, December 4, 2009

Some thoughts on Ayn Rand

The Wall Streeet Journal has just published an interesting discussion of Ayn Rand, "Does Ayn Rand Hurt the Market?" Read it here.

For a number of years I taught a one hour class at Adrian College in which we read and discussed Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged. The students who took the class were always an intelligent and highly diverse group, and not just those who were predisposed to agree with her. One notable student, one of my favorites despite his political orientation at the time which was pretty much left wing, told me he took the class because his advisor told him "it would test his values." And I think it did.

Although I found Atlas Shrugged to be an excellent book to provoke student thought and discussions, my own feelings about Rand's outlook were and are very mixed. I first heard of her and read Atlas Shrugged when I was a first year graduate student in political science at The Johns Hopkins University. She was coming in to give a talk there and I always like to read something before going to hear the author talk.

The book profoundly depressed me at the time, which didn't take much doing as my first year at Hopkins was not a very happy one. Uprooted from all my friends from undergraduate days at Willamette University in Oregon and from my parents, who were living in Honolulu, I was lonely and felt socially uncomfortable at Hopkins. I was living in a rented room in a not very hospitable private home near the University. With no cooking facilities available to me, when all the University dining halls shut down for Christmas vacation I ended up eating Christmas dinner all by myself in a Chinese restaurant----the only place I could find open! (And I still like Chinese food today, in spite of this!)

This was not an ideal posture in which to plunge into Rand's book, but of course I had no idea what I was getting into. I think now that my very negative reaction to the book was due to its combination of a very sour and indeed horrible philosophy of life with a very useful and sharp distinction between voluntary associations and involuntary associations. Government is, of course, fundamentally an involuntary association, as I have discussed in my four books available on-line for free reading, linking, and even reprinting. (Click here  to access them.)

Rand's big mistake, I think, was in her failure to see how important government is in setting the context within which voluntary associations on any scale are possible by protecting property rights, enforcing contracts (which are one way of creating voluntary associations), and enforcing basic rules of the road to prevent voluntary associations from interacting with one another in ways which are destructive to the general welfare (such as the recent economic meltdown in the U.S. and elsewhere).

Nonetheless I am very grateful to her for helping me grope my way, during the next ten years, to the general classification of human associations which is summarized in the "periodic table of associations" in my first two books mentioned above.

I remain of two minds about Rand. On the one hand, I still find her general philosophy quite perverse, and Atlas Shrugged can hardly be considered great literature. On the other hand it contained great insights into the nature of human associations, and on top of that, Rand made money from her books. Lots of money! As an author myself, this is one quality of hers that I would dearly have loved to emulate.

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