The New Republic has an essay about Alisa Rosenbaum, nee Ayn Rand, inspired by two new books about her life:
Her Russian-Jewish family faced severe state discrimination, first for being Jewish under the czars, and then for being wealthy merchants under the Bolsheviks, who stole her family’s home and business for the alleged benefit of the people. . . Around the age of five, Alissa Rosenbaum’s mother instructed her to put away some of her toys for a year. She offered up her favorite possessions, thinking of the joy that she would feel when she got them back after a long wait. When the year had passed, she asked her mother for the toys, only to be told she had given them away to an orphanage.
I think Rand and her books are worth paying attention to, not because they are well written (shudder) but if you want to get an idea of how a frighteningly large number of businessmen and their admirers in right-wing politics imagine themselves, their role in society and justify their actions then The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are compulsory reading.
In a way I think Rand and her attitude towards corporate CEO’s has been mischaracterized, both by her fans and her enemies. It’s true that most Objectivists have a silly, adoring-schoolgirl attitude towards the rich and successful and imagine that they have all sorts of heroic qualities and magical powers, but if you read Rand’s books – Atlas Shrugged especially – the antagonists are almost all big businessmen: incompetent, dishonest, stealing from their shareholders, running their companies into the ground and begging the government to save them. The only difference between them and a modern Wall Street banker is that the banker has read Rand and considers himself an epic hero in her mold, when he’s much closer to one of her villans.
And it’s also not true – as the linked article states – that Rand considered physics ‘corrupt’. Pre-20th century physics was fine, it’s all that modern stuff with probabilities and wave-particle duality that Rand had a problem with and considered ‘perverted’ physics.
Rand-baiting aside, I have two basic problems with the Objectivist/libertarian viewpoint. The first is historical: people like Rand and von Hayek made very famous predictions about the outcome of Roosevelt’s New Deal and the welfare states that the socialist democracies of Western and Northern Europe built after WWII: they prophesied that these countries would suffer from catastrophic economic failure and become totalitarian slave states indistinguishable from the Soviet Union. Instead they became the wealthiest economies that the world had ever seen, the citizens of which enjoyed unprecedented quality of life and freedom. That’s a pretty epic fail.
The second is it’s failure to confront problems like climate change. If Objectivism were a robust intellectual system then it would be able to propose a sensible, free market individualistic solution to climate change; instead being an Objectivist or a libertarian is synonymous with climate change denial. Responding to a problem by pretending it does not exist is not a responsible position: you have to wonder how a world of libertarians would react to similar catastrophic events like the outbreak of a deadly new disease (‘the doctors and scientists are lying, the streets are not really choked with corpses, the science is deeply disputed . . .’). With no public health and no regulations around waste disposal, food handling or hygiene a libertarian utopia would enjoy a high frequency of lethal pandemics so the question of how they’d respond to them is salient.