Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ayn Rand

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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  1. Deke:

    I'm not sure if my interpretation of Rand's work, read first as a teenager and then later with the perspective of maturity, is the same as yours.

    That said, I prefer your interpretation. You made me pause and wonder if I had been viewing in incorrectly.

    I plan to think about these ideas again with your comments in mind. But if I change my viewpoint, does that make me a "second hander'?

  2. Thanks Mike. I had been encouraged to make good on my claim that my blog would sometimes include philosophy, and I was particularly encouraged by 2 friends to write about Ayn Rand. I'm lucky to have a friend like you (and like the two of them) with whom I can discuss literature and philosophy, and solutions to the problems of the world. Perhaps over a beer at Rudy's soon. :)

  3. 1)Anyone who follows anyone's philosophy to the letter with no exceptions is a fool, because in my view they all have something that I can’t abide by, every single one of them- from Aquinas, to Kant to Plato.

    2)I consider myself a modern day Howard Roark, but I use music and a bass guitar rather than Architecture, to try as best as I can to break new ground. I self produce and finance all of my projects,and in doing so, i support a vast array of professionals, from musicians to mastering engineers to graphic designers. I don't want money,or input from anyone to make what i do come to fruition-- i want to do it my way. I don't seek profit(but do not shun it), creating art being the primary concern.I don't put a gun to your head to purchase what i do- and despite the emphasis on mediocrity- people somehow seem to find me and purchase what i do- insuring that there will be more endeavors in the future. Don't like it? Don't buy it- but please do not take it from me-- you are also wronging the people that actually took the time to legitimately purchase things from me and many others like me. Sounds pretty Randian so far, right?

    3)Don’t misunderstand rational self interest. I chose to raise my Niece from birth since 1993. I didn’t consider it a burden, or altruistic. It was what I wanted to do; living my life for me, and my standards.You can live to please yourself, or live it to please someone else.

    4)A Moocher is a person who takes what he did not create; living off of the efforts of others. No difference between shoplifting or illegal downloading of anything- be it software or music. For those who don’t agree- just wait until the internet cuts into your bottom line(it's inevitable), and makes you question your very existence. When creators of software, music, movies and other services are no longer able to survive off of their efforts,(due to the new generation of kids who refuse to pay for anything that they might be able to somehow download for free) they will quite simply stop creating.
    Why would they? Why should they?
    Rand was a believer in the concept of Intellectual Property.The property of ones mind.
    We all can’t be as gifted and creative as Bill Gates , Ted Turner or Steve Jobs, but that is ok! Don’t begrudge them for profiting when they have revolutionized your world through their genius- you are free to do the same; conceive the next revolution in news broadcasting, IPOD, IPAD, breakthrough computer software or whatever. If you can’t, enjoy the fruits of the labor of the people who have changed your world for the better-- and stop bitching.