Jonathan Chait on Ayn Rand

Jonathan Chait’s review essay taking off from two new books about Ayn Rand, one of the most interesting and influential intellectual figures of 20th century, somehow manages to take the form of an extended defense of the redistribution of income and wealth. The bizarro-Rumpelstiltskin of the welfare state, Chait could spin gold into a defense of the redistribution of income and wealth, and he probably has! The problem with his Rand essay is that he spins away with only haphazard reference to Rand’s work or thought. The root of the problem, I think, is twofold. First, Chait doesn’t much care to know about Ayn Rand’s work or thought, but wanted to pen a good Tea Party-pooping Ayn Rand slapdown anyway. Second, he lazily confuses a certain syndrome of anti-redistributive thinking common among Glenn Beck aficionados, in which some Randian themes certainly do appear, with Rand’s own thought.

The meat of Chait’s essay is devoted to beating up the false idea that levels of income and wealth roughly correspond to levels of effort, productivity, or some other exercise of virtue. This line of thinking eventually leads Chait into an examination of the overall progressivity of the American tax system. (Less progressive than you might think!) But what does this have to do with Ayn Rand?

Chait writes:

[T]he Randian inversion of the Marxist worldview … rests upon a series of propositions that can be falsified by data.

Let us begin with the premise that wealth represents a sign of personal virtue–thrift, hard work, and the rest–and poverty the lack thereof.

He then proceeds to beat up on some Republicans.

As Chait points out, Rand plumped for Wilkie in 1940, but she was no Republican. More to the point, Rand did not think income and wealth represents a sign of virtue — of hard work, productivity, or anything else. Being an intelligent person, she thought that who got how much of what depended on the complex interplay of culture and the structure of the political economy. She did think that those who through effort or industry improve others’ lives ought to see the value of their work acknowledged and rewarded in some form or other. But no one would infer from Rand’s novels and nonfiction that the United States looks, or in her day looked, anything like her ideal.

Rand was a radical critic of what she saw as our debased culture and “mixed economy.” In her biting words, a mixed economy is

a mixture of capitalism and statism, of freedom and controls. A mixed economy is a country in the process of disintegration, a civil war of pressure-groups looting and devouring one another.

Hey! That’s us! Massive political bailouts to banks and auto manufacturers and seething political strife over the expansion of redistributive “entitlements” are precisely the kinds of things Rand had in mind.

Let’s take a moment to think of the many ways worldly success and moral merit come apart in Rand’s immensely influential fiction. In The Fountainhead, Peter Keating traces the trajectory of the sell-out. He achieves professional success through slavish conformity to banal popular taste. He is the archetype of Rand’s despised “second-hander.” Rand’s point is not that pathetic second-handers with desperate cravings for external validation do not work their way into the top income decile. Her point is that they do! But they don’t really deserve it. If there’s cosmic justice, it’s in the fact that successful second-handers are miserable because they know they don’t deserve it. Rand’s condemnation of Keating is also a not-very-subtle condemnation of popular taste, which she generally judges execrable. Whatever else it might be, The Fountainhead is a searing critique of getting ahead by giving the people what they want. From a quick read of Rand’s lesser doorstop, one might suspect that, exceptional cases aside, the distributions of both income and social esteem bear a strong relationship to skill at peddling popular bullshit.

Rand emphasizes that in a world of second-handers, a great single-minded artist might die broke and mostly forgotten. That’s the sub-plot of Henry Cameron in The Fountainhead. And if not for the intervention of the surprising philosophical and oratorical talents suddenly summoned by the book’s taciturn hero at his bombing trial (one man’s terrorism is another man’s unflinching aesthetic vision!), Howard Roark would have gotten a good harsh dose of criminal justice and ended up rotting in jail, like notable theory-driven bombers Ted Kazcynski and Timothy McVeigh, instead of skating like Bill Ayers. That Roark ends up surveying the world that has become his oyster from his uncompromising skyscraper with his uncompromising gal is a triumph of hopeful narrative malfeasance over the bitter penniless ruin that is otherwise depicted as the great man’s predictable lot.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand doesn’t much conceal her disgust at James Taggart, the immensely wealthy heir to a railroad fortune who tries to consolidate the position of his inherited company through political pull. In Rand’s taxonomy of villains, he is a “looter.” Rand’s point is not that looters don’t get ahead. Her point is they do. And it works because actually productive people are either too dumb or guilty to grasp that moralizing political rhetoric is as often as not a bullshit front for corporatist political predation. From a quick read of Atlas Shrugged, one might expect that the distribution of income and social esteem in a “mixed economy” bears a strong relationship to membership in pressure groups, and the quality of their lobbyists and PR flaks.

The mostly tragic world of Atlas Shrugged is one in which the truly creative and productive are rewarded with unending resentment and exploitation while politically-connected corporations pay Washington insiders to rig the mechanisms of redistributive democratic politics to reel in and lock down unearned gains. Rand thought the world we actually live in is dangerously close to the one she depicted.

Rand does not valorize the wealthy. She valorizes the uncompromising integrity of creative visionaries and the productivity of inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs. But there is little to assure the reader that the virtues she extols really pay. Rand’s view of the world was actually pretty bleak, pretty Russian. Her best novel, We the Living, is best precisely because she had yet to philosophically suppress her tragic instincts. One of the least plausible and certainly the saddest aspects of Rand’s thought is what she called the “benevolent universe premise” — a kind of as-if attitudinal stance of positivity meant to ensure “the inability to believe in the power or the triumph of evil.” She goes on:

No matter what corruption one observes in one’s immediate background, one is unable to accept it as normal, permanent or metaphysically right. One feels: “This injustice (or terror or falsehood or frustration or pain or agony) is the exception in life, not the rule.” One feels certain that somewhere on earth—even if not anywhere in one’s surroundings or within one’s reach—a proper, human way of life is possible to human beings, and justice matters.

“One feels…” This is Rand’s leap of faith, her animal spirit, her will to believe. She needed her silly, contrived happy endings — and she thought we needed them — to maintain the will to do the right thing, to fight for justice, despite every indication that it’s a bad bet. Rand thought we need to feel that effort and virtue will be rewarded, or else we will, rationally enough, stop supplying effort and virtue. And then we’ll all be good and truly screwed. Make of this what you will, but it is very far from the vulgar Calvinism that sees a person’s level of success as an indicator of their merit.

Now, I’m more than willing to snicker right along with Chait at ridiculously puffed-up computer engineers who threaten to “Go Galt” at the first hint of an impending tax hike while blithely enjoying the wage subsidy of the United State’s super-stingy H1-B visa cap. But he’s really just careless in conflating the views of Ayn Rand’s confused fans with Ayn Rand’s own. I’m delighted there are two important new books that take Rand seriously as a woman, writer, and thinker. It’s too bad that Chait uses their publication as an occasion to once again take a brave stand for the redistributive state.


88 thoughts on “Jonathan Chait on Ayn Rand

  1. The only way you don't have a “mixed” economy is when you don't have the kind of police and security apparatus that only the state can provide, someone bigger comes along and steals whatever those heroic captains of industry have produced. As soon as you have any state, you have more state, and if you have any, you have a mixed economy.

  2. I agree, to an extent. But constitutional limitation of redistributive power can and does work. Conflict over the “fiscal commons” is largely due to the failure to recognize the nature of the problem and to uphold rules that would mitigate its harm. Mid-century classical liberals like Hayek and Rand were very pessimistic about the possibility of a constrained welfare state, and for good reason. But the “mix” is more stable than they thought.

  3. I agree, and despite my (well earned, I know) reputation, I too am interested in preventing a statist creep that leads to genuinely injustice redistributive practice. I just don't see much utility in imagining a free market/command economy binary, and then regarding anything inbetween as mixed. The question is, which mixture?

  4. Not a bad counter-argument, but it seems like you and Chait are talking past one another. Chait is mostly talking about what Randism has wrought in the real world, while you read Rand's literary work as showing she recognizes that the world which exists in her books isn't the libertarian fantasyland people make it out to be. Of course, that doesn't mean that there are a lot of people who believe in the fantasyland. These two arguments can both be true.

  5. Everytime I read a little Ayn Rand or read about Ayn Rand, I feel like I am watching last year's Batman movie, “The Dark Knight.” Simplistic views about black and white, good and evil. Great for teenagers, a yawn for anyone has a moved on to a more nuanced understanding of the world around them.

  6. Though Will did a nice job of explaining Rand's loves and hates, I'm still confused about who she'd consider “good” 2009. Would she like Bill Gates, but loathe the guy who started Facebook? Would the South Park creators be considered innovators or “sell outs” ? Its so much easier to just read Milton Friedman…

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  8. She would like Bill Gates. She would accuse Facebook of promoting “social metaphysics.” She'd worry that Parker and Stone's relentless mockery makes them, and their fans, incapable of reverence. I have my ouija board right here.

  9. Apparently in the land of nuance, “Dark Knight” was a completely different movie. Also, it must've been called something different, since the thrust of its very title is lost on people who live there.

  10. Tragedy? I think it's tragic that a novelist gets more popular culture attention on moral and political philosophy than real philosophers–one's who give explicit arguments and engage other views–like Rawls, Nozick, Korsgard, Singer, etc. But, of course, Rand did give all these under-appreciated self-avowed geniuses the “going Galt” fantasy they so badly want. I guess book sales don't track philosophical merit. Mmmmmmm. Irony.

  11. Ayn Rand would not like Bill Gates. Smart people don't need icons or mouses; the old DOS mechanism where you have to remember the code letter for each action was fine. Bill Gates sold out by making clunky bloatware.Mind you, this analysis is based on Mr. Wilkinson's summary of Randianism. I have never read anything she wrote, because real men don't read novels.

  12. dude, did you seriously write, “Rand did not think income and wealth represents a sign of virtue — of hard work, productivity, or anything else.”?and you're talking about the woman who wrote, “Wealth is the product of man's capacity to think … Money is the product of virtue … To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you … money demands of you the highest virtues, if you wish to make it or to keep it… The words 'to make money' hold the essence of human morality… Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction.”

  13. First off: Thanks for doing the rebuttal, pieces like Chait's annoy the crap out of me as someone who read and actually understood Rand's points. The strawman of Rand as lover of the “rich” isn't borne out in her novels at all – to look just at Atlas Shrugged, a solid 98% of the villains in the book were rich people who've benefited from protectionist policies & wealth redistribution, lobbyists and by being shills for the state. I recently revisited Atlas Shrugged, and while the reductionist character development still annoys me, the conditions of America by the end of the novel are startlingly like what we are currently living through. Chait, however, exhibits the kind of insight into Rand's philosophy of someone who has not so much as read any more than the dustcover to the cliff's notes version of The Fountainhead.

  14. Within the context of what Chait was saying, Wilkinson's point is accurate. It's not wealth qua wealth as she would say – but how it was earned, and that it was earned and not stolen which is virtuous.

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  16. since will used the terms “income and wealth” rather than “loot and plunder,” i can only assume that he, too, is talking about monies that are earned rather than stolen. i think my point stands.

  17. I was actually going to include a bit from Francisco's money speech, but cut it in the interests of not wandering too far afield. This is a dramatized statement of Rand's ideal theory, a statement of what money really should mean. In Rand's ideal society, Galt's Gulch, money and wealth do reflect the value one has created and traded with others. It expresses her commitment to the ideal of a society based on voluntary reciprocal exchange. But Atlas Shrugged is about the distance immense distance between a world like ours and a world like that. Back to the context of the novel, Francisco D'Anconia obviously doesn't think James Taggart is immensely rich because of his virtue, capacity to think, the best power within him, and so on. Right? Or Orren Boyle? Wesley Mouch doesn't end up running the economy because he's so meritorious, right? That's all I'm saying. Insofar as our world is like the world of Atlas, Rand evidently does not believe bank balances track virtue.

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  19. sure, she leaves some wiggle room for the existence of “looters” and “moochers” and “second-handers,” because it's plain that in the real world there are people who make it big undeservedly, and to ignore that would make the novels even more ridiculously implausible than they are.but she also makes it very clear that among the real men, the heroes, the traders, the rationalists who earn their money, it is indeed a virtue. and of course, her ideal reader empathizes with these men, sees himself as one of them, and should take the same view of money they do. your mention of the vast differences between the real world and her ideal of galt's gulch makes the point very nicely: in the novel, the problem with the real world was that far too few people viewed money the way francisco and galt did. the lesson we are meant to take away is that the world would be a better place if more of us adopted their idealized view. that was what she was selling.

  20. What he said. Great rebuttal and as you stated Will, Chait cherry-picks quotes from Rand and somehow mistakenly interpolates viewpoints from Rand that contradict her writings. Chait also gets into Rand's personal life in more detail than I care to know while humping his vision for a better “progressive” America. BTW, was that supposed to be a book(s) review? Cause I didn't learn much about the books.

  21. This is one of the best readings of Rand I've read in a long time. I've grown weary of the cartoon versions. Rand was an imperfect, complex woman, but she was undoubtedly a great thinker who made many an intellectual sweat to refute her.

  22. I wouldn't say Rand leaves herself “wiggle room” in depicting fictional worlds in which “looters” and “moochers” and “second-handers” dominate. I'd say that she pretty conclusive doesn't think money in such worlds tracks virtue. And she thought our world was like her fictional worlds. I don't disagree that a lot of Rand's admirers ridiculously identify themselves with her heroes, despite the fact that even the best of them is Eddie Willers. And I don't disagree that a lot of Rand's admirers vacillate incoherently between the idea that our world is chillingly similar to the one depicted in Atlas Shrugged and the idea that wealth is in fact a measure of virtue. But the fact that Rand's admirers can't understand books doesn't speak to what the books actually say.

  23. The only Rand book I have read is Anthem and I read it in like the seventh grade. I did think it was important to criticize communism/socialism not just on practical grounds, but also because it deprived people of individuality.

  24. One of my favorite moments in “The Fountainhead” is after Roark declines a profitable commission that would require him to compromise his vision. He's accused of being “fanantical and selfless” and he responds, “that was the most selfish thing you've ever seen a man do.”Additionally, in “Atlas Shrugged,” John Galt could have made billions off his static electric motor, but that was not his primary motivation.

  25. what i love about the “novelist” ayn rand is how complex and multidimensional her characters are. they're so real! so much Truth! she was a true novelist, a real artist, not at all just a worthless polemicist.

  26. i share your love of sarcasm. more than that, i love how richly textured the “novelist” ayn rand's fiction was. and how funny she was! she was a true artist, not a screechingly partisan hack. her contribution to american letters was significant.

  27. From your description of Rand, it seems that she couldn't make up her mind whether to be for or against capitalism. Her disdain for the “sell-outs” was the same as that of any socialist, for the free choice of those they “sold out” to, and for economic freedom per se.And Rand missed the point, and Chait misses it, and all of you miss it, in your discussions of redistribution, that it doesn't work, doesn't pay, doesn't make the poor richer but poorer, and doesn't reduce but increases inequality.

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  29. This is tiresome.This is a very common “criticism” of Rand.There are many kinds of legitimately good novels, and they're not all richly textured with multi-dimensional, realistic, characters. Often, there's something else going on that many people enjoy and find valuable. If you can't appreciate it (if, indeed, you've actually made an attempt), that's too bad for you.She was funny, she was a true artist, and her contribution to American letters was significant. This is true of many writers that I strongly disagree with, too.

  30. The Looters want to make everything more complex so it's harder for people to call them out on their looting. It's called obfuscation.

  31. What would Ayn Rand think of Rambo – a highly trained soldier who can take on armies and win? Especially as Rambo can “think for himself” in using underground geurilla tactics whilst his foes are standard soldiers simply follow orders and protocol and therefore get their butts kicked? Is this not similar to her concept of a brilliant few wealth producing individual who are so gifted they can disappear from the economy and society ends up going to Hell in a handbasket?

  32. I gave two necessary conditions: giving explicit arguments and engaging other views. I have no idea where you got the notion that I think my calling somethig philosophy was a sufficient condition. I suppose there's a case to be made for a broader conception of philosophy that would include more literary works like Rand's. I just find it a bit manipulative to argue for your view by building up sympathy for fictional characters, as opposed to the more academic (though drier, more boring, and less popular) style that most philosophers use. I also thought that it was rather ironic given what Will said about “second-handers” that Rand's philosophical influence over the people I mentioned, all of whom have better reputations in the philosophical community, by choosing a more pandering mode of presentation for her ideas.

  33. a more nuanced understanding of the world Arguing that your worldview is more complex is about a simplistic of a rebuttal one can think of.

  34. Um, didn't most people who read (or heard about) Ayn Rand in high school or college … grow out of it? (Except Steve Ditko.) Hardly an important or very interesting figure of the twentieth century — just a bad novelist. But terms like “the redistributive state” are a clue that you've encountered someone who never did grow out of reading Ayn Rand as a high school freshman. Weird.

  35. Rand lionized wealth derived from providing a good or a service that has value to other members of society. However, much “wealth” is nowadays not linked to a good or a service or an asset. This is evidenced by the growth of derivatives, hedge funds, and the like. These are vehicles for creating money from other money without any link to true intellectual progress; I call it “capitalism run amok”.

  36. Gates&Co. Bought DOS b/c they knew it existed after having a contract from IBM for an OS.”IBM again approached Bill Gates. Gates in turn approached Seattle Computer Products. There, programmer Tim Paterson had developed a variant of CP/M-80, intended as an internal product for testing SCP's new 16-bit Intel 8086 CPU card for the S-100 bus. The system was initially named “QDOS” (Quick and Dirty Operating System), before being made commercially available as 86-DOS. Microsoft purchased 86-DOS, allegedly for $50,000. This became Microsoft Disk Operating System, MS-DOS, introduced in 1981.[1″ (wikipedia)Gates, while talented, is closer to the “railroad tycoon” than the brilliant visionary creative.

  37. where we disagree is on *why* her fans ridiculously identify with those characters. you think it's because they just didn't understand; i think it's because they understood exactly what she wanted them to understand.if one had to find something nice to say about rand's writing, it would have to be that she had clarity of expression. and the fact that francisco was an idealized hero hardly argues against her sharing his views on money. she herself acknowledged that her heroes best expressed her philosophy (she would say things like, “Since I am to speak on the Objectivist Ethics, I shall begin by quoting its best representative—John Galt.”). these characters' monologues, in particular, are virtually indistinguishable in form and content from her non-fiction writings. you're entitled to your opinion like anyone else, but a statement that she saw money as completely unrelated to virtue still strikes me as a misrepresentation of her position.

  38. curious is spot on. We can agree that Rand does not think that money *necessarily* tracks virtue in our world, but she clearly believes it *does* track virtue when certain conditions are satisfied. Rand fails to adequately describe these conditions and is content to summarize them via the lazy, impossibly black-and-white constructs of her characters. More accurately, she *needs* this improbable contrast in order to prop up her hardline conclusions.To say that many Rand followers misinterpret her work is both accurate and misleading: of course they identify themselves as Galtian even when their own achievements do not warrant it, and of course Rand intended them to. Where else in the “Atlas world,” if they don't reject it outright, should readers place themselves? There is no grey area, for either aspiration or moral leniency.The key to understanding Rand is not to note the similarities between the “Atlas world” and our own, but the omissions. While superficially alike, the “Atlas world” harbors mostly two kinds of people: despicable know-nothings in a damned cesspool (jump in, if you dare!) and enlightened heroes who like to hang out with each other and make lots of money (door's open!). Is it any wonder that objectivism provides cover for so many hollow souls?

  39. It especially drives me bonkers the way people insist on cramming the ideology into their own prefabricated political dichotomies. I don't think Rand once mentioned the difference between labor and capital, but it comes up with a lot of frequency in these debates.Granted that I'm only familiar with Atlas Shrugged, but it seems to me that Rand would have almost as much respect for a menial laborer who, while not incredibly brilliant or productive, makes his or her own way in the world, exchanging his or her talents with others to survive, and refuses charity along the way, as much as her capitalist ubermensch.

  40. I think, in fact, that the very notion of the character Eddie Willers – or the fact that for the bulk of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt was only known to Dagny Taggart as a station worker should show quite clearly that the point is not that people are rich, but that they are moral.

  41. There were plenty of characters who were represented as in between the two factions you describe. Dagney Taggart and Hank Rearden spend nearly the entire novel torn between a sense of obligation for one and admiration for the other. Further, there are characters in the book who are described as a bit less than heroic in ability but still recognize and cherish the heroic abilities of the protagonists of the book.

  42. You should probably actually read Rand – especially, “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal”. Rand's point, like any free market supporter you will find today (see: George Reisman, is that when you start mixing the government into the equation you no longer have free enterprise – the more government that gets mixed, the less you can rightly call the system capitalist. Right now, it's far more appropriate to label the US economy as “corporatist” or even in some ways “mercantilist”. This is patently not capitalism.The “sellouts” in Ayn Rands world are not people who decided to offer products they didn't necessarily use or like themselves, or even working just for money. The sellouts are those who abandoned voluntary exchange and instead went to government in order to have special laws or taxes passed which put their competitors out of business. The villains of both the Fountainhead & Atlas Shrugged are those who cease being traders, and instead turn into the cowardly business leaders we see in America right now – getting government to force taxpayers to prop them up in spite of their destructive and unwanted decisions.

  43. I said “mostly,” but what happens to these “tweeners”? Do they get to hang out with the rich and interesting people in Galt's amusement park? Does anyone aspire to be *them*? Rand's direction to her readers is clear.

  44. This is the first time I've heard someone say that Ayn Rand is for high schoolers! I need to write this down–I may never hear it again!

  45. Mike C., she is a better novelist than you.It's nice to know you are so tolerant of people who don't want all government, all-the-time, in every hole like you do.

  46. Excellent response to Chait's smear-piece. Interesting take of Rand's benevolent universe premise. However, I this idea is more evident in passages like Rand's description of Halley's Concerto, or the flashbacks to Dagny's childhood, than in her happy endings. Thank you for the post, Will.

  47. The author of this blog post says that Rand considered the state of capitalism to be in a highly imperfect state back when she wrote her books, and probably consider it so now–with wealth not going to the deserving (necessarily) and a mix of public and private interests jointly governing the economy with the attendant corrupting influences.The fact is that Rand never pointed to any point in history when it was not thus. And I don't think anyone else can either.This brings up the most obvious and dismantling critique of her and her followers: Her view of perfect capitalism (or whatever you wanted to call her view of the way she thought things ought to be) is an abstract fantasy — never existed and never will. I suspect that that has to do with human nature and I suspect it is the same reason marxism can't work: society reflects the imperfections of people.Given that, attempting to shape political policy or even views on current political problems, on this type of abstract fantasy that can't exist isn't just counterproductive, its probably harmful. oh, and as a sidenote it does make people pushing Randism look ridiculous and self admiring, as Chait pretty accurately depicts…….

  48. Very interesting (and surprising) take on Rand, Will.I must confess that I've never read any of her stuff, apart from maybe in excerpt, but know of her ideas at second hand. Most of what is attributed to her seemed fairly inane to me. Her votarists made claims that were greatly at odds with real world facts. Ironically, I thought her followers could be easily countered by many of the same points you say constitute her true criticism – namely, that the distinguishing mark of modern capitalist society is the friendly alliance between the state (chief bugaboo in the libertarian playbook) and influential entities from the business sector. And that the real game-changers, the real difference makers often go unawarded in this misbegotten arrangement. It's often the intellectual labors of multiple individuals (e.g. scientists, engineers, etc.), over many generations and in joint effort, that fuel technological advancement, which is the basis for increasing productivity and, in turn, greater prosperity. It's really this advancement that enrich modern corporations, not just the relatively modest contributions from business leaders and executives, who ultimately collect the large emoluments.If this is more or less Rand's true lament, I suppose I stand four-square with her. But I have to say again that I've never heard anyone give a reading of Rand's work like you.

  49. I find Rand to be a more serious philosopher than Singer.Ayn Rand is a philosopher in exactly the same way that L. Ron Hubbard is a philosopher.Singer hasn't written any bad science fiction that I'm aware of, so it's probably best to just leave him out of the discussion.

  50. Great ideas, start-ups, products and companies begin with a great vision. That great vision comes from an individual. That's what I take from Rand. While it is true that much of technology is perfected by groups, it is individuals who possess the vision that gets the ball rolling. Committees and boards spend much of their time copying (and diluting) what currently sells. Great vision doesn't compromise.

  51. spot on re: rand not being a (very) interesting 20th century figure. and spot on re: her literary bona fides, although i must confess that i've never read any of her books cover-to-cover. i just don't have the intestinal fortitude to power thru page after page of reductionist claptrap. OTOH, while i've read enough of her work to stand firm in these judgments about her novelistic and literary merits, i must admit that some of my extreme hostility towards rand's work might — truth be told — be rooted in what mr. wilkinson identifies as rand's critics' tendency to conflate her views with those of her (MANY) confused, sychophantic, pseudo-libertarian devotees. i got through a quarter century w/o picking up atlas shrugged, succumbing only after the millionth time a conservative friend/colleague raved about what a masterpiece it is, how full it is of sparkling, ephiphany-inducing insights, and how it changed their political development (if not their lives). these friends + colleagues would make absurd claims about how high she ranked in the pantheon of 20th cent. novelists/writers/journalists. the ridiculousness of these ill-informed judgments was made all the more evident by subsequent questions put to these friends' + colleagues' re: other great modern novelists/writers/journalists whom i had read — and whose work was foreign to many of my rand-boosting friends. had they read any of the great late 20th cent. novelists — updike? no. mailer? no. bellow? no. roth? no. had they read any of the 'new journalists' — hs thompson, gay talese, tom wolfe? no, no, and no. AND YET: these poorly read recommenders were so adamant in their authoritative declarations of rand's genius and greatness. it baffles.

  52. “quick read of Atlas Shrugged””I have never seen those two phrases used in the same sentence before. Well done!”I dunno. Interesting thought experiment. Imagine a speed-reader a la Woody Allen: “I'm a speed-reader. I just finished 'War and Peace'. “Oh, what was it about?” “Russia.”Now, “I'm a speed-reader. I just finished 'Atlas Shrugged'. “Oh, what was it about?””_____________.”

  53. Haha, this is more true than you might think. I recall several years ago listening to Glen Beck on the radio and him discussing Amtrak. His advice: read Atlas Shrugged. As if the main point was about the downside of public transportation.

  54. I've read Updike, Mailer, Bellow, Roth, Thompson, Talese, and Tom Wolfe. Only two of those writers are worth reading at all – Thompson and Wolfe. Some of Mailer's nonfiction is interesting. Ditto Updike. Bellow and Roth are mediocrities. The idea of someone like Bellow winning an important literary prize like the Nobel is utterly absurd. Rand is a better and more important writer than any of those on your list.JR

  55. But the fact that Rand's admirers can't understand [her?] books doesn't speak to what the books actually say.I'm just going to leave that there and let it speak for itself. But I think we may be in the presence of a true scholar.

  56. Correcting some factual details — Chait's no more meticulous factually than he is interpretively.”Rand spent her first months in this country subsisting on loans from relatives in Chicago, which she promised to repay lavishly when she struck it rich. (She reneged, never speaking to her Chicago family again.)”Although, according to Barbara Branden, in The Passion of Ayn Rand, pg. 72, Rand never carried through on her declaration to her aunt Minna, “When I make a lot of money, I'm going to get you a Rolls-Royce,” she remained grateful for her Chicago relatives' help, and there's no indication that either she or the family thought of their help as “loans.” The description of her as “never speaking to her Chicago family again” is flat-out false, according to Barbara's account. As well as corresponding with them for years — albeit with increasing infrequency and eventual cessation — she saw members of the family when they visited Los Angeles or later New York and when she gave a lecture in Chicago. (She sent them tickets and they attended. I suppose that would have been the McCormick Place lecture in Fall '63.) Also on the occasion of Burton Stone's death she attended the funeral. (Burton Stone was a cousin, Aunt Anna's son; he greatly admired Ayn and was interested in her philosophy. She remained in touch specifically with him until his death.)-“Sex and romance loomed unusually large in Rand's worldview. Objectivism taught that intellectual parity is the sole legitimate basis for romantic or sexual attraction.”No, it didn't.”Coincidentally enough, this doctrine cleared the way for Rand–a woman possessed of looks that could be charitably described as unusual, along with abysmal personal hygiene and grooming habits–to seduce young men in her orbit. Rand […] persuaded Branden, who was twenty-five years her junior, to undertake a long-term sexual relationship with her […].”Branden initiated the affair — see his own account. Where does Chait get the plural (“young men”)? Or the “abysmal personal hygiene”? There's no indication in either of the Brandens' accounts of poor *hygiene*, although there is of inattention to grooming. The latter is a characteristic shared by a lot of people who are absorbed in intellectual work. As to her “looks,” there are photos. Chait makes her sound like an eye-sore.He similarly goes overboard in his description of the “cult” atmosphere.-“Rand called her doctrine 'Objectivism,' and it eventually expanded well beyond politics and economics to psychology, culture, science (she considered the entire field of physics 'corrupt'), and sundry other fields.”Rand didn't claim to dictate the contents of science, if that's what he means. The statement about physics is incorrect. She thought that Kantian influence was corrupting theoretic developments in specifically 20th-century physics, though she didn't know enough physics to provide demonstration. There are only hints of her views on physics in her writings. My primary source on that issue is some conversations she had with my husband, who's a physicist.What “sundry other fields” does he mean? Art, yes. Anything else?”Objectivism was premised on the absolute centrality of logic to all human endeavors. Emotion and taste had no place.”Has Chait actually read her work?

  57. Has Peter Singer written any work that couldn't be construed as “bad science fiction”?(sorry, cheap shot…)

  58. Joely: “Where else in the “Atlas world,” if they don't reject it outright, should readers place themselves?”Precisely. If one takes a favourable view of Atlas Shrugged, one will identify with the heroes. Otherwise, you’re out of luck. Rand has constructed her moral universe in such a way that there are only two possible responses: yes or no. Anyone looking for constructive engagement from a critical standpoint will be disappointed because by definition they will be cast into the ‘bad’ camp. It’s little wonder that Rand’s conservative readers can easily fall into a way of thinking that sees the United States as “…divided into two classes – the hard-working, productive elite, and the indolent masses leeching off their labor…” to quote Chait. Hands up those who volunteer for the leech label.So whether their fortune is great or small, the reader who takes a favourable view of Atlas Shrugged will almost inevitably identify with one of the heroes, and will adopt the heroes’ views about the virtue of productive effort and its rewards. And that effort will be theirs, not someone else’s, and therefore the reward will be theirs and theirs alone.

  59. I find that a curious position. While I was absolutely enraptured by Atlas Shrugged, I thought character was Ms. Rosenbaum's weakest point. Far better were her sense of location, her ability to create an atmosphere, her plot and her solid prose.

  60. Mr. Baker,Please explain how derivatives and hedge funds and “the like” create money from other money. And then explain how this is “capitalism run amok”. By the way, you do not need to put quotes around your own quotation.

  61. She would have rejected South Park early on, after the episode in which Officer Barbrady calls Atlas Shrugged a piece of shit…

  62. Will, you write that Rand is one of the most interesting and influential intellectual figures of the 20th century. On what basis? For all that I can see, Rand was very influential, but her influence was closer to that of a self-help author than that of a philosopher or social theorist. I can't tell you what she added to the intellectual landscape of the 20th century. I'm not going to actively argue that her ideas were bad–I don't pretend to know enough about them to say that. The problem is that even people who claim to admire her never seem to mention any particular ideas, or even better, arguments that I should consider. So she was for capitalism and selfishness. So are many people. What distinguishes her? Why should I investigate her ideas? Is there some phenomenon (in the broadest sense possible) that she helps us understand? I did search for Rand on your website, in hopes that I could find what you take from her. But I came up empty-handed. In contrast, if I look for Hayek, I find specific ideas of his that you mention and use. Moreover, it's clear why those ideas matter. I'm not asking you to prove to my satisfaction that Rand was right. Just to explain why she so much as mattered as an intellectual figure.

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  64. Chait writes, “Let us begin with the premise that wealth represents a sign of personal virtue – thrift, hard work, and the rest – and poverty the lack thereof.” I agree with Will that this is an incorrect interpretation, but the hardcore Randians over at ARI do encourage some simple-minded thinking along these lines. I recall seeing a poster for the Atlas Shrugged essay contest several years back. It was aimed at business students. The prompt was something like, Explain and defend Rand's idea that “it is moral to make money.” I remember thinking, “Did she ever really put it like that?”

  65. “Let us begin with the premise that wealth represents a sign of personal virtue – thrift, hard work, and the rest – and poverty the lack thereof.” – I think one could say whealth is positively correlated with “personal virtue” tough (caveat: I have not read Ayn Rand, I'm just guessing what it means to her), especially wealth from non-huge fortunes made by people from modest backgrounds (who aren't lawyers or into finance, not that lots of people that do law/finance aren't essential to capitalism)…

  66. Nice article Will,Just want to first say I have enjoyed your contributions to bloggingheads. I'm a fan of Mr Wright and his site and have started looking for your contributions. That has led me to this blog of yours.You make some excellent points about Mr Chaits article on Ms Rand but it seems to me that he is doing what everyone does when reviewing something they disagree with. Some may want a dispassioned analysis and I'm sure there are some out there but when someone with a position is analyzing something fundamentally different they will tend to write something along the lines of Mr Chaits piece. I dont think Mr Chait hides his…………..ideology , if you will, nor does he misquote or cram words into Ms Rands mouth. When the president says he wants to “hold insurance companies responsible for their actions”, many hear him saying “I'm gonna take their profits and GIVE them to undeserving poor people and illegal immigrants” , while others hear “I'm gonna try and eliminate the perverse incentive of profiting by denying health care payments to those who thought they had paid for insurance” This is just our meta analysis working and we all do it with a different algorithm.One last comment to the folks (I've seen a few here in the comments) who take todays environment and compare it to the world in Atlas Shrugged; The John Galts were HERE when this all went down. They didnt leave first. The captains of industry were complicit and in many instances leading the way……down.

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  69. “Ayn Rand is one of America's great mysteries. She was an amphetamine-addicted author of sub-Dan Brown potboilers, who in her spare time wrote lavish torrents of praise for serial killers and the Bernie Madoff-style embezzlers of her day. She opposed democracy on the grounds that “the masses”—her readers—were “lice” and “parasites” who scarcely deserved to live. Yet she remains one of the most popular writers in the United States, still selling 800,000 books a year from beyond the grave. She regularly tops any list of books that Americans say have most influenced them. Since the great crash of 2008, her writing has had another Benzedrine rush, as Rush Limbaugh hails her as a prophetess. With her assertions that government is “evil” and selfishness is “the only virtue,” she is the patron saint of the tea-partiers and the death panel doomsters. So how did this little Russian bomb of pure immorality in a black wig become an American icon?”From “How Ayn Rand Became an American IconThe perverse allure of a damaged woman”.By Johann Hari (Slate).

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