Monday, July 8, 2013

Good Libertarian Attacks on Rand

Cross posted to the Late Enlightenment.

Recently I ran across David Brin (a libertarian) and his writings on Ayn Rand. These should have their own special genre; one which deserves our attention. 1984 was Orwell's answer to what he saw as the developing problems with socialism, and (as an understatement) it is an important work.

Before giving you the sharper points of another writer's attacks, what is good about Rand? What do people get out of it?

- The power of capitalism to eliminate human suffering.
- The power of the individual; it's not surprising that young people establishing their own identities are the ones to whom this most appeals, and (I would argue) it's important that young people have things that reinforce their confidence in themselves and their goals and values.

The piece in question is here. The most interesting argument he makes is that (in his view) Rand is clearly influenced by Marx in terms of her teleological thinking. He misses a chance to mention her infamous standing-on-one-foot answer, which was a ripoff of Rabbi Hillel. She borrowed at least once, either (most charitably) unaware that she was doing so, or assuming that her audience would not be familiar with these sources. (Which itself says something else about her.)

A point worth disagreeing with, not just here but with other writers, is that it's not a valid criticism to say that her novels lay out a plan for bringing Rand's values to the world. Not because the world in Atlas Shrugged is a great one, but because the novels don't claim to be a blueprint for what the world should look like and the actions to take to get there, even with a 70-page monologue. (I'm unfamiliar with her having made this claim in non-fiction. If you're aware of any such claims, please point me to the evidence and I'll change my position.) Compare to Marx, who in a non-fiction manifesto, laid out a plan for the dictatorship of the proletariat, which Lenin followed fairly closely.

(Another article that Brin links to makes the argument the Atlas Shrugged is part of trilogy. Interesting non-fiction plot twist in that one.)

Other weaknesses that have always appeared to me likely because of my background: a lack of familiarity with evolution and in one case a distrust of how it could have produced an intelligent animal; a strange proclivity to imply heritable positions in her characters (all while decrying decadent monarchies elsewhere); and implicit assumptions about gender roles including disparaging comments about possibly gay characters. To the last point, defenders might say "But this was the 1950s; you can't fault someone for being a product of their times," to which an appropriate response is "But this is someone who was claiming the absolute, correct and final version of morality; if she missed something, that makes it irrelevant whether or not the ambient culture produced those blind spots." When you claim to have produced the final answers, rather than improving the process to get the answers, these are the kinds of problems you're open to. (Defenders might also say that homosexuality is morally wrong, and then the discussion devolves to a more profound level about the origins of morality. The kind of people who take this position will have a hard time showing themselves to be on the side of reason and not irrational authoritarianism here.)

A final problem that Brin mentions is the inverse state worship that afflicts objectivists and libertarians, but this is not unique to Brin's critique or to Rand. Suffice it to say the state is not the only institution ever conceived that can make humans suffer.

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