Ayn Rand is in the news this month since Congressman and VP hopeful Paul Ryan cited her as a major influence. In reaction, Paul Krugman wrote that Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged is “a perennial favorite among adolescent boys”. And in regard to the G.O.P.:“What does it say about the party when its intellectual leader evidently gets his ideas largely from deeply unrealistic fantasy novels?” The Economist is a bit more calm, saying “Paul Ryan is an elected official whose views therefore fall squarely within the ambit of conventional political wisdom. Despite his professed admiration for Ayn Rand, and the ardent wishes of his admirers and detractors alike, Mr Ryan is far from a laissez faire radical.”
Using Ayn Rand to beat up or defend Paul Ryan is what it is. The more interesting question is why Rand’s books are perennial favorites of adolescent boys. What is the secret of her enduring appeal, at least for certain people?
Despite my once being an adolescent Rand fanboy myself, I’ve always struggled to put my finger on her cultish appeal. But that changed after reading David Sloan Wilson’s book Evolution for Everyone which has a chapter called “Ayn Rand: Religious Zealot”. Then it clicked. Wilson wrote an article here if you want to read it, though I think his original essay from his book is better.
Wilson’s analysis of Rand is tied to his views on evolutionary group conflict. If you take an action against another person, you can win or lose. And that other person can win or lose as well. To illustrate let’s use an example of having/taking candy as in the table below. So making candy together is an action that makes us cooperate win-win. And if my action makes me lose and you win, it’s altruism, giving you my candy. Selfish is taking your candy. Destructive is lose-lose by throwing all our candy in the trash. I added an outcome row where you are indifferent as well. The first section below outlines a normal view of categorizing my actions.
Compared to normal views, Wilson then cites the Hutterite’s who are communalists, with ownership by and for the group. So Hutterite’s believe what we would call altruism (giving you my candy) is a win for both of us. If I sacrifice for the group, it’s good even for me. Conversely if I’m selfish and steal your candy, this is a loser even for me. We are both worse off. So in some sense you redefine the world so that win-lose or lose-win do not exist. And as religious zealots for communalism, even the case where you are indifferent (make candy on my own) is barely tolerated. Really you need to spend all your time in the cooperate box (where altruism also sits since that’s for your own good), or else you’re lose-lose. The Hutterite view is the middle section of the table above.
Now contrast with Ayn Rand’s world. She takes individualism to it’s limits. Cooperation win-win doesn’t change too much from the conventional view. But if I steal your candy that’s not selfish because it’s not in my rational self interest. And if you steal from me (looting), then that’s also a lose-lose. So again the win-lose scenario doesn’t exist. It’s just that now stealing candy (selfish) and giving candy (altruist) are both pushed to the destructive lose-lose box. Rand says explicitly in Atlas Shrugged that “”There are no conflicts of interest among rational men”. There are no win-lose or lose-win conflicts. So in Rand’s world you normally spend all your time in the row where the other person is indifferent (pure individualism – making your own candy), or in the win-win cooperate box (mutually make or trade your candy). And that’s all there is except lose-lose destruction. In her book The Virtue of Selfishness Rand defines the word selfishness in exactly this way, as residing only in the win-win or win-indifferent boxes.
Now of course Wilson really zings Rand (a hard core atheist) by calling her a religious zealot. But it hits the mark. Comparing Rand’s philosophy to Hutterite religion really does provide a perfect mirror contrast. Furthermore Rand’s movement did and does have a comparable religious intensity, becoming preoccupied with who’s pure. And that intensity is coupled to a very strong moral component, saying it’s not just ok to be a capitalist, but deeply moral as well. The whole package is very attractive to a certain mindset, though with cultlike overtones.
What the Hutterite and Randian zealots have in common is they both believe a single narrow approach can fix any win-lose problem. Hutterites believe in altruistic cooperation. Randians believe in individualistic cooperation. To illustrate consider Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor ”humans are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.” Haidt of course meant that humans are more social than chimps, who by the way are highly social to start with. Taking the communal view to an extreme gives the bee metaphor. And the opposite individualist view is beyond chimp, let’s call it Orangutan since they are the most solitary great ape. So you can wear the pure Hutterite zealot glasses and see humans as solving their win-lose problems as communal bees. Or you wear the pure Randian zealot glasses and see humans solving their win-lose problems as individualistic apes.
Recall that Rand left Russia in 1925 at the age of 20, having lived through the start of communism and Stalinism. She had seen first hand what the zealot communal bee glasses can do. As famed ant biologist E. O. Wilson said of Marxism “Wonderful theory, wrong species.”
Likewise if you wear only the individualist ape zealot glasses you can wind up deep in social darwinism survival of the fittest territory. In particular Rand has trouble grasping the fact that market failures exist at all. For her market failure can’t exist since markets have some magical quality reminiscent of the South Park Nomes, where markets in step 2 magically lead to profit. And finally of course the real crazy starts when you have two zealots with opposite glasses locked in the same room. Madness.
Given our mixed human nature, unfortunately this means neither pair of zealot glasses will go away. We’ll continue to use a mix of altruistic cooperation and individualistic cooperation to solve complex win-lose problems. So if you are an adolescent who is drawn to communalism, Marx will continue to have appeal. And putting on the communal bee zealot glasses might help you solve win-lose problems in ways others might miss. The whole environmentalist movement is based on wearing the zealot bee glasses, and it’s done a lot of good. Alternatively, if you are an introvert uncomfortable with the communalism and ra-ra gossip of high school, Rand might open your eyes to the fact that making candy on your own is not a crime. At least it helped me when I was a teenager. And those Orangutan glasses can really make it easier to see why markets, when kept in line, can make everyone better off through trade. China’s rise out of poverty being the great current example. And that market/trade idea is hard to get in your head when you have your bee glasses on. So putting on the zealot glasses from time to time for perspective is not an evil thing. It can even be eye-opening.
Furthermore if Marx leads you to more balanced communalist thinkers like say Max Weber, that’s all good. And if Rand leads you to more balanced individualist thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, that’s also good. Though no doubt Krugman would disagree, saying Ayn Rand brings out the crazy, especially in Republicans. In fact Krugman has also made clear he thinks Hayek is bad at macroeconomics as well, despite or perhaps because of the fact they both have Nobel prizes in economics. But perhaps the real lesson here is how hard it is to put on bifocals.
PS – On Sep 4, 2012 David Sloan Wilson did a post on Rand and Ryan. It’s here