The Philosophy of Ayn Rand in the 21st Century
Russian novelist Ayn Rand (1905-1982) can be a controversial figure. She has a diverse and devoted following. I count myself as among those significantly influenced by her ideas.
I have two excellent friends who are interested in discussing the impact of Rand’s philosophies on modern thinking. My friend S was inspired by Rand to be the best at what he does. He finds purity of purpose in doing what he does extraordinarily well, despite the compensation not being all he might wish. My friend L, on the other hand, is deeply offended by the excesses of those in the US financial sector that point to works of Ayn Rand to justify their Gordon Gekko greed. This blog post is dedicated to these two friends.
I have to start by making it clear that I’m not a Rand scholar. Actual Rand scholars may certainly take issue with my interpretation. If they do, I hope they’ll post comments here! That said, I do have some thinking based on my own reading of Ayn Rand novels and essays.
My read of Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged is that they are a celebration of creativity, excellence and personal focus. The heroes of these stories are extraordinary people who are clear-thinking and who act (tirelessly) to realize their visions. They create unique and tangible excellence. They are selfish – but not in the common sense of that word. They don’t act in their own interests to the detriment of others. Rather they know and understand who they are (their “self”) and act informed by that knowledge. They are true to themselves. They think about their inventions, their art, their engineering, their craft – not about riches. Though they would say that they deserve to be paid if what they create has value.
When I think of contemporary real life people who might fill that hero role, I think of Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic), Elon Musk (Tesla Motors, SpaceX), Ted Turner (Turner Broadcasting and America’s Cup racing), and Steve Jobs (Apple, Pixar). Leave a comment with your own suggested additions to that list.
Those men I listed acquired great wealth, but did so by creating things of worth and by expertly delivering on their vision.
The villains in these same Ayn Rand novels are the “second handers.” Second handers are those who leach value from those who create, while creating nothing of value themselves. The very worst of the second handers are those who are capable (and often intelligent and competent), but create nothing new themselves. They hope to acquire wealth on the backs of those who create.
What of the Wall Street wizards who created complex (and perhaps misleading) financial instruments derived indirectly from products, services, and real estate of real value? Did they create something new of real value? I know my answer.
The philosophy of Ayn Rand is complex and, I think, often misunderstood. For those interested in a more thorough study of Rand, I suggest the web resources of the Ayn Rand Institute. There you can find, among other things, Objectivism discussed in the author's own words.
I fully expect that not everyone will agree with my interpretation, and look forward to comments on this post.
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