Ayn Rand’s heartless version of objectivism

March 23, 2008 | By | 19 Replies More

At Daylight Atheism, Ebonmuse puts Rand’s theory of objectivism under a bright analytical light and finds it wanting:

Since Objectivists reject all notions of a social safety net, it’s natural to ask what would happen to the poor and needy in an Objectivist society. This is Ayn Rand’s answer: “If you want to help them, you will not be stopped” (p.80).

This chilling response, which carries with it the unmistakable implication that she will not be participating in any such effort, illustrates Objectivist philosophy’s cruel, heartless ethic of social Darwinism. Its guiding principle is not “we’re all in this together”, but rather “every man for himself” – and whatever misery strikes the worthless and the inferior as a result ought not to trouble the brave, heroic, superior souls whom Rand imagines are mankind’s salvation. The parallels between this doctrine and the beliefs of tyrants throughout history should be too obvious to need pointing out.

Rand based many of her conclusions on her unwarranted belief in the allegedly perfect wisdom of the “free market,” an (unfortunately) common belief that I have repeatedly criticized at this site.  

As a teenager, I was briefly enchanted with Rand’s writings.  I pulled away, though, for many of the reasons Ebonmuse eloquently raises in his detailed post.


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About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (19)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    If you take the long view of human history, you'll notice that social progress occurs in fits and starts. Civilization goes through cycles between "every man for himself" and "let's spend all our resources supporting the weak". Neither of these extremes lasts for long. Civilizations rise toward supporting and then fall from supporting. Then comes a period of adjustment (starvation, plague, invasions, etc) and it eventually rises again.

    That's how biological populations progress, as well. Evolution.

    Rand's quoted answer may have been intended in the colloquial mode, using the vernacular "you" for the global "one". But the few of her novels that I've read certainly support the idea that she believed in survival of the fittest, and not creating social restraints to hobble the fittest.

    See Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" or Kornbluths "The Marching Morons" for other Rand-contemporary views on superiority and the response of society.

  2. Ebonmuse says:

    Dan: one thing I found telling (and cited in my post) was a quote from Ayn Rand to the effect that, because the Native Americans didn't hold to a capitalist conception of property rights, they therefore deserved no rights at all, and the Europeans were fully justified in doing anything they wanted to them. Yes, she really said that.

    Some of her followers showed up and claimed I was misinterpreting the quote, though given the bluntness of her wording, I don't think they had any basis to claim that. But what I found more amazing is that quite a few of them defended this stance and claimed that, yes, the conquistadors were acting rightly. One commenter said that the Native Americans, who had been living on that land for hundreds of generations and had built cities, empires and elaborate civilizations, were "squatters".

  3. It might do us all good to realize—to remember, I should say—that what the Europeans did to the native Americans was possible because there was no constraint. Meaning no law to prevent it, nor enforcement of any such law that might have been. We forget that Law is an artifice. It may reflect our inclinations, moral or otherwise, but ultimately it is what we say it is and its force is only what we give it. There is no "natural" Law in that sense.

    Rand was at the extreme end of a long line of people who thought there is a natural law (which for an atheist like Rand was kind of interesting) and that anything humans concocted as Law was necessarily arbitrary and usually error-filled. Yet she applied the similes and metaphors of human concoctions (like capitalism) to her own conception of that natural vision of Law all the time. She was a smart woman, but trapped in her own biases like so many others. She loathed and despised the soviet systems (from firsthand experience) and saw capitalism as the natural enemy of communism. Her allegiance blinded her to the fact that both are human constructs.

    But we criticize Rand tend to suspect that there is a "natural" Law and that it is apposite to Rand's. There is not. And what we conceive of today as good and proper in a hundred years may appear either barbaric or naive. We have to stop freewheeling conceptually and figure out what kind of Law we actually want and remind ourselves constantly that it is only an artifice.

    In that respect Rand is instructive.

  4. Greenstaya says:

    "The parallels between this doctrine and the beliefs of tyrants throughout history should be too obvious to need pointing out."

    World across at present and also in history, it was communist government which were creating miseries for their people.

    A free market will always find way to help those deserving needy !

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Greenstaya: Here is a source that says that 25,000 people starve to death every day. Most of these deaths are occurring in African and southern Asian countries, whose governments no longer have the power or interest to reach out an affect the lives of those people. The poor subsist in hopelessness until they die. It can be argued that these places of greatest tragedy are environments where the market is as "free" as it can get.

    Yet you say that "a free market will always find a way to help those deserving needy." I suppose that none of those people are "deserving?"


  6. The ugly canard that needs to be dealt with is the notion that there is such a thing as a "free market"—there is not. Someone always controls the market, whether it be a government, an aristocracy, a consortium of business people, or a mafia boss. The sooner we get over this absurd idea, the sooner we can start coming to grips with what needs to be done to make the market work well enough to do what we want it to.

  7. Anon says:

    You all don't have the first clue what you are talking about when it comes to what Ayn Rand said. I mean, you are so far off, I don't even know where to begin. You are stuck thinking about ideas in strict Marxist terms, and if an idea doesn't match up with some Marxist construct in your database, you spit some Marxist tenet back out that has some of the same words, like a match on a Google search. Then you proceed to evaluate it by Marxist standards. How about a little original thinking?

    Example: American Indians. They themselves claimed that they did not own the land because no one can own land. So how could Europeans "steal" it? Ownership a precondition of theft. And if the Europeans' conception of property rights is "arbitrary" and "error-filled" because all systems of law are so, then on what basis do you give a free pass to the American Indians'? Your whole argument is self-contradictory.

    And for the author here to compare Ayn Rand, a radical for individual rights, to tyrants throughout history, who have killed millions of people in the most "heartless" ways imaginable, is just beyond the pale. Name me a single dictator that is using Rand's philosophy of individualism. None – because they all grab power and implement their schemes using the "we are all in this together" line, not "every man for himself." They convince their subjects that they are fighting for the good of their society, and individual rights be damned.

  8. –Example: American Indians. They themselves claimed that they did not own the land because no one can own land. So how could Europeans “steal” it? Ownership a precondition of theft.–

    Legally, you may be correct. Morally? Grow up. Two problems with this old canard. The first, not all Indians said this—in fact, most of the Eastern seaboard tribes vehemently claimed the land as theirs. While it is true they did not practice property rights the way Europeans did, they did nevertheless "sell" a lot of land to the settlers. The second thing is, they owned their Home—which happened to be the land they lived on. They did not have a concept of deeding in perpetuity the way Europeans did, but when you study the way the land was appropriated, it is obvious that the Indians had very concrete notions of possession and use.

    Secondly, Marxism was wrong in many ways, but Marx's critique of capitalism was dead on. Rand's problem was that she decided that an artificial system of finance and commerce was somehow "natural" — she claimed that capitalism was the only natural and moral system. Considering the history of abuses to which capitalism can be credited, I question her concept of morality. However, I look only to her fiction as demonstration that her "individuals" practiced a species of self-vindication that borders on the criminal. The dictator gets voted into power, well, it's not Henry Reardon's fault, and if that's what they want then he'll just pick up his marbles on leave.

    Rand's basic problem was that she thought the ability to Play The Game was the dividing line between those who have a right to exist and those who just get left behind. That if one couldn't "get with the program" then one's destruction was only to be expected and not the fault of her true heroes.

    One last thing—you need not be a Marxist to be critical of Rand. The system she championed was in place in the early 19th century and any perusal of Dickens will suffice to see what harm it caused, and there were people then who recognized it—and not a Marxist to be found.

  9. Jake says:

    Your opinion is based on the one fallacy most people with no knowledge of basic economics commit: the zero sum game fallacy.

    Anyone who suggests supporting the free market is economic darwinism relies on the premise that the rich must neccesarily hurt the poor, to become rich, as that happens among animals, thus facilitating the survival of the fittest.

    Clearly, that is not the case. Ayn Rand was well aware of this, that's why she chose laissez-faire Capitalism as her humanist philosophy's obvious extention into the political realm.

  10. Tony Coyle says:

    laissez-faire Capitalism (LFC) is fine if everyone 'plays by the rules' – but,wait – there are no 'rules' in such a system, except those which emerge fro the behavior and actions of the participants.

    The US saw a couple of periods of unfettered LFC… the age of the robber barons, responsible for the obscene wealth acquired by the Vanderbilt and Rockefeller families. In breaking up such monopolies of power, the government of the day (and the society) chose a more moderated and regulated form of capitalism.

    Similar adjustments and regulation of unfettered capital were needed after the Crash of '29, the Savings and Loan scandal, and latterly, the Wall St Bailout. there are many other examples globally – but they are more distant in time (generally) since Europe mostly went through these crises in the 17th to 19th centuries.

    Libertarians (and other Randians) do not like to hear about negative evidence – but the truth is there: LFC does not work, because, as they say – power corrupts – absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Iron Hand of the market, needs the Steel Hand of government regulation.

  11. Dan Klarmann says:

    Jake apparently doesn't understand biological evolution, either.

    The fittest species often turns out to be the one that leaves its environment richer for others, not one that consumes the most. Symbionts surpass parasites by an enormous margin. Biology is not a zero-sum game, and populations are modeled using the same math that economy eventually adopts.

  12. SteveH says:

    Objectivism derives its name from its principle – objective reasoning.

    Ayn Rand sought to answer the questions "Is it necessary for Man to have an ethics?" If the answer is no, then there is no further discussion. But the answer is yes.

    Now you have to answer "Why?". Rand looked at the objective fact that life – any life – has a fundamental principle. That is Life must choose to exist. She examined how different forms of life pursue existence.

    Some, like plants and amoebas, have built in senses that help them pursue food and avoid harm. They have no brains so they can not retain any memories and simply act on the immediate inputs provided by their senses. That is their nature.

    Higher forms of life, like fish, antelope and cheetahs, require some training to discover what is good for them and what will cause harm. Granted these animals have some instincts at birth, but their primary means of survival is perception. Their brains have a limited capacity to learn how to flee/hunt, etc. They are limited to what their perceptions allow them to react to. It would be idiotic to suggest a Cheetah should live like a plant because that is not the nature of a Cheetah. The Cheetah furthers its existence by using its perceptions to hunt. Further, a Cheetah has no choice in the matter. It must act as a Cheetah.

    Man's soul means of survival is a reasoning mind. As such, Man must act in his nature developing his mind to go beyond percepts and construct concepts. Unfortunately, this is not automatic and Man has a choice – develop his reasoning faculty or not.

    More importantly, the mind is the property of the individual. No one can think for him, just as food in your stomach can not provide sustenance for my body.

    Rand based her philosophy on this basic concept.

    Where Progressives get it wrong is that Man does not have the capacity deal with the world or with others. Progressive feel that nature and society is inherently malevolent. Only be banding together can the individual survive, they claim.

    Rand has quite the opposite view. She says that nature is neutral. Man is heroic and can deal with the world around him. Man can benefit from living in the proper society and should seek out the company of those individuals that can further his existence. Man should deal with others using the Trader's Principle – exchanging value for value. And that value is based on the sole judgment of the individuals involved in the transaction.

    In the Progressive worldview, society is source of harm that must be tamed. This is why they naturally gravitate to collectivist solutions be it government or spiritual.

    The dirty little secret of Progressive ideology is that it is ultimately cruel. The very things they claim are the "right" of every worker, ultimately become scarce under their programs. Look at Venezuela for a contemporary example. Oil supposedly belonged to the Venezuelan people. So, Chavez took over the oil companies. Those with the no how to run these oil wells and refineries understood that their ability to would be used for the "good" of others. They have left. Venezuelan oil production has decreased as a result.

    Chavez monetary policy has caused staggering inflation. To combat his own mistake, he instituted price controls. These price controls prevented businesses from making enough money to pay their bills and worker's salaries. So, they switched production to products that were not under price controls. Chavez now has poured on more government control by seizing the factories. He will force them to make more of the unprofitable products. The fact that it costs more to produce the product than the company can make selling it has not been eliminated. So, objectively, the company will reach a point where it has to close or turn to the government for subsidies. Rather than be a revenue source for the government, it will either be lost or it will become a revenue sink to the government.

    So, what is more cruel? Progressive ideology ignores basic principles of economics leading to unprofitable businesses, loss of jobs, inflation and more government dependence which allows men to stagnate. Capitalism allows individuals make their own choices as to which jobs to take, what products to buy, what products to produce – in other words, it allows Man to live as his nature dictates. It forces him to develop his reasoning faculties.

    What Progressives ultimately object to is that Capitalism does not allow Man to stagnate. It does not allow Man to take any old job he wants. It does not allow Man to make bad decisions and escape the consequences.

    What Progressives deliver is not freedom from these things but dependence on others. Those who are successful under Progressive societies are those that are politically connected. Rather than land of equals, it delivers a stagnate, stratified society where the only way to succeed is to seek political favors. Political pull is the coin of their realm, not ability and achievement.

  13. SteveH,

    Ayn Rand based her philosophy on one thing: I (the individual) wish to choose which obligations to fulfill, to other individuals or to society. I owe nothing to anyone not of my choosing.

    She developed the ideal philosophy for the well-educated misanthrope.

    Your characterization of Progressives (and they come in many stripes, so lumping them all together as if they were the same is faulty logic) is simplistic and error-filled. By your definition, Chavez fits the mold for a Randian Objectivist more than any Progressive—set the capitalist economic aspect aside, and he is the Hero, the Indispensible Individual, only He knows what is the right way, and he acts according to his own precepts.

    Rand made the same mistake that the middle-period Marxists made, assuming that people are all potentially equal, that it is only bad choices in education or a diverted will that render them victim to ideologies that do not "free" them from collectivist oppression. This is bad psychology, worse sociology, and any broad base of contact with a wide array of human beings would demonstrate that it is a false presmise. Nevertheless, she portrayed accurately the inevitable outcome of her so-called Objectivist revolution in "Atlas Shrugged"—the rise of a new aristocracy.

    Capitalism is a terrible ethos because, uncontrolled, it favors the least ethical. In Rand's rather convoluted exigesis, this comes out as some kind of natural correctness, that the "true" nature of the predator is somehow the preferred moral condition. And if you could somehow educate these types in a thoroughly Socratic philosopher king ethic before letting them know that they're predators then they might restrain their worst attributes. But in the real world, all you do is create a Dodge City situation in which the one who is willing to shoot first always wins. So much for ethics and morality.

    Rand created a hothouse philosophy. It is ultimately as inconsistent with human nature as Marxism. I find that ironic. Sad and ironic.

  14. Tony Coyle says:


    I do not intend to snark – but if you are going to rant about objectivism, reasoning, and the power/challenge of mind – you might want to learn to read and write. Your words 'sound like' English, but you might find that prepositions come in useful, homonyms are not synonyms, and unsubstantiated claims do make an argument compelling.

  15. deus ex ego says:

    Tony Coyle,

    Considering your original intentions not to snark, you may want to contemplate exercising a little more willpower in committing to your prefaces.

    Also–"…unsubstantiated claims do make an argument compelling." This philosophy on arguing seems to be shared by many of you who attack and misunderstand Rand's philosophy. Logically, quite an unconventional view, though I'm willing to hear you out.

    Let me not mask my intentions: I mean only to snark–a technique which all of you will undoubtedly recognize as having much argumentative weight. 🙂

  16. Tony Coyle says:

    Deus ex ego — snark you may. Free thought reigns supreme, including thought that I (or other contributors) might find to be personally disturbing! It does not make objectivism any more a rational philosophy than is dianetics!

    I did, of course, snark (you caught me!)

    You might consider the grand ancient art of telegraphing for the audience your intentions by stating an intent, then blatantly carrying out the opposite. Sarcasm appears as alien to you as English was to SteveH.

    I also made a minor typo! (shock! quel horreur!) — neglecting a 'not' mutated a finely wrought snark into a meaningless mump. I, of course, intended to say "unsubstantiated claims do not make an argument compelling" which should be obvious to a casual reader from the context, if not the content.

    Lastly: while you snark under a nom-de-plume, I do so as myself. Perhaps you cannot cope with the stares of people who might look on your hideously deformed prose and feel pity? Worry not.

    We pity you anyway. God exists not (and especially not from the minds of shallow literalists)

  17. Erich Vieth says:

    Adam Kirsch comments on Ayn Rand's seductive writings:

    Rand’s particular intellectual contribution, the thing that makes her so popular and so American, is the way she managed to mass market elitism — to convince so many people, especially young people, that they could be geniuses without being in any concrete way distinguished. Or, rather, that they could distinguish themselves by the ardor of their commitment to Rand’s teaching. The very form of her novels makes the same point: they are as cartoonish and sexed-up as any best seller, yet they are constantly suggesting that the reader who appreciates them is one of the elect.


  18. Erich Vieth says:

    This is from Andrew Corsello's article at GQ:

    The Galt speech continues to ring in their ears for years like a maddening tinnitus, turning each of them into what next year's Physicians' Desk Reference will (undoubtedly) term an Ayn Rand Asshole (ARA). They constitute a relatively small percentage of Rand readers, these ARAs. But they make their reading count. Thanks to them, the Rand Experience is no longer limited to those who have read the books. It's metastasized. You, me, all of us, we're living it. Because it's the ARA Army of antigovernment-antiregulation puritans who have spent the past three decades gleefully pulling the cooling rods out of the American economy.


  19. Erich Vieth says:

    From Andrew Sullivan:

    "[A] philosopher whose greatest contribution is a vast incuriosity is a dismal thing."


    and see here: http://www.slate.com/id/2233966/

    Notable quotes:

    As her books became mega-sellers, Rand surrounded herself with a tightly policed cult of young people who believed she had found the One Objective Truth about the world. They were required to memorize her novels and slapped down as "imbecilic" and "anti-life" by Rand if they asked questions. One student said: "There was a right kind of music, a right kind of art, a right kind of interior design, a right kind of dancing. There were wrong books which we should not buy."

    and this:

    Rand expresses, with a certain pithy crudeness, an instinct that courses through us all sometimes: I'm the only one who matters! I'm not going to care about any of you any more! She then absolutizes it in an amphetamine Benzedrine-charged reductio ad absurdum by insisting it is the only feeling worth entertaining, ever.

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