Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

Objectivism

Ever since I saw Jennifer Burns’ interview on The Daily Show, I knew I had to read Ayn Rand’s books and see what all the rage was about. In a nutshell, she was on promoting her new book and how Republicans in the United States are embracing the works of Ayn Rand and the potential pitfalls involved. At a very superficial level, the idea is that Republicans tend to be elitist and traditionally want a small government, which is more or less what Ayn Rand is proposing. But at the end of the day, Ayn Rand is a Libertarian, and Republicans and Libertarians just don’t mix. There are, however, a slew of other reasons why Ayn Rand is not a good fit for the Republican party. But in order to talk about why Ayn Rand is not a good fit for Republicans, we must first talk about Ayn Rand.

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Of Rand’s books, I’ve read The FountainheadAtlas Shrugged, and The Virtue of Selfishness, which covers all of her main works (the first two) and one that tends to focus on the world we live in instead (the last one). Let’s start with the first in the list, The Fountainhead.

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The Fountainhead is what we would call the “dark horse” of Ayn Rand’s works, forever out-shined by the far more popular Atlas Shrugged, but at the same time still an excellent read. It juggles a number of main characters and if you’ve never read an Ayn Rand book (as was the case for me at the time), it’s completely unclear who the protagonists / good guys are and who the antagonists / bad guys are. The hero (Roark) cares only about producing the best architecture in the world and must combat the “second-handers” at every step of the way, people who care only about taking things from other people and are unable to contribute anything meaningful in any way. They are essentially the kind of people you see on reality television shows, who are only interested in taking down everyone else to win the big cash prize. They think they’re the good guys but that you have to be a schemer to get ahead in life, so they manipulate the world around them to get ahead while producing nothing novel or worthwhile.

This does not mean that all the second-handers do is criticize architecture all day and do nothing. To the contrary, they form cliques with each other to all do the same architecture (contributing nothing new at the end of the day) and throw anyone under the bus who seeks to go against the unspoken rule that this is how it has to be. So when someone like Roark comes along, who is a no-nonsense straight shooter only interested in architecture for the sake of architecture (and not as a means to get rich or take down rivals), he sticks out like a sore thumb as the immediate adversary of the second-handers.

And like a great Ayn Rand book, there are a few speeches of moderate size that really speak to the core of her philosophy (Objectivism) and to those of her rivals (the second-handers). But like Ron Paul (who appears to have very similar views), Ayn Rand is really a person you either love or hate. You either read her works and think it’s amazing or a piece of garbage. While I think it’s the former, the people in the latter tend to pick out the most controversial part of The Fountainhead as ammunition against the book.

Towards the middle of the book, Roark “rapes” his love interest, Dominique Francon. The word “rape” is in quotes because I will make the case that it is not. Roark does this to Francon apparently knowing that she wants it, she in fact does want it, and furthermore, she knows that he knows this is the case (and apparently wouldn’t he have done this without knowing all that). Rape specifically requires that one party does not consent to the act in question, and since it’s abundantly clear in the text that she consents to it, it’s not rape.

The Fountainhead is the story of one man fighting to save the world from stagnation told from the viewpoint of the individual. In contrast, Atlas Shrugged is the same story told from the viewpoint of society itself.

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Atlas Shrugged is the work most people recognize when they think of Ayn Rand. And as Ayn Rand puts it,

To all the readers who discovered The Fountainhead and asked me many questions about the wider application of its ideas, I want to say that I am answering these questions in the present novel and that The Fountainhead was only an overture to Atlas Shrugged. I trust that no one will tell me that men such as I write about don’t exist. That this book has been written – and published – is my proof that they do.

This passage is a critical clue to what you can expect from Atlas Shrugged. It does everything that The Fountainhead does, but more so. The heroes are more heroic, the villains more villainous, the speeches much longer than before, and (from the end of her quote) that the characters are more unbelievable than before.

The heroes of Atlas Shrugged eventually band together and go mentally “on strike”. Tired of a world that doesn’t appreciate them and only acts as parasites on their existence, John Galt and his crew refuse to use their genius and vanish from the known world itself. He and the rest of their new society (appropriately named Atlantis) give the world a simple choice: allow the greats of the world to be productive without being forced to, or they will vanish permanently. Since the second-handers need power in order to feel worthwhile, they cannot choose the first option, and since the second-handers need the producers / geniuses to produce new things for them to take advantage of, they cannot choose the second option. Galt’s message is broadcast around the world with his entire worldview in an attempt to properly inform the world so that the people can rise up and overthrow their corrupt government (and corruption across the system), and as Galt expects, chaos breaks out around the country. I won’t ruin the ending, but let’s say that all ends up well for most of the heroes involved.

So while the scope of the heroes has increased dramatically since The Fountainhead, so has the scope of the villains. The second-handers return stronger than ever, embracing the ideal of communism and trying to bring it about in the United States. They are the ultimate epitome of the phrase “Good intentions pave the road to Hell”, however, since doing so destroys the ability of the country to function properly, in a fashion similar to that of the Soviet Union’s Five Year Plans and China’s Great Leap Forward. The second-handers can only blame the geniuses of the world for their own failures (since the second-handers refuse responsibility for anything) and feel a need to constrain them further as a perceived need to protect themselves from the “evil moneyhungry tyrants of big business”. More on this later.

Like in The Fountainhead, each main character has one big speech about what defines them, but in Atlas Shrugged, the length of these speeches is much longer (Galt’s speech in my Signet edition is ~50 pages at about a 9 point font!). And while Galt’s speech is the longest by far, the other main characters still give speeches that at least equal Roark’s final speech in The Fountainhead. But what it boils down to is whether or not you like Ayn Rand or not. If you do, you’ll welcome the speeches, and if you don’t, why are you reading this book? Atlas Shrugged leaves very little to interpretation, as Ayn Rand’s defining work, and tells us about the name of the book itself (Page 347 in the Signet edition):

Life, he though, had been defined as motion; man’s life was purposeful motion; what was the state of a being to whom purpose and motion were denied, a being held in chains but left to breathe and to see all the magnificence of the possibilities he could have reached, left to scream “Why?” and to be shown the muzzle of a gun as sole explanation? He shrugged, walking on; he did not care even to find an answer.

Finally, let’s look at the characters themselves. Whereas Jane Austen’s characters all tend to learn and grow by the end of the book, Ayn Rand goes a different route (but still maintains a very real set of characters in it). Ayn Rand prefers to have one main character learn and grow but leave the others more or less static. Howard Roark and John Galt, as the heroes of the world, learn their purpose early on in their lives and strive to live happy lives in the face of increasing adversity, and similarly, the second-handers always seek to destroy them (albeit with varying levels of confidence based on their successes and failures). As such, the reader tends to embody the role of the one character that does change throughout the book, Dominique Francon in The Fountainhead and Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged. But one complaint leveled by others is that the heroes and villains embody their ideologies too much, making them appear unrealistic. This is the specific purpose of the end of Rand’s quote from earlier, saying that “yes, these people really do exist”, to which I agree.

Both books are amazing, but I can’t really say which is better. The Fountainhead excels because of how subtle its messages and impacts are, and Atlas Shrugged excels because of how blatant its messages and impacts are. So they’re both great, but for opposite reasons. Let’s wrap this up with a much shorter book from Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness.

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This book examines the ethics of Objectivism, actively practiced by the heroes of the previous two books, and how it looks like in the world we live in. It’s a series of essays by Ayn Rand and former Objectivist Nathaniel Branden on what it really means to be selfish and dispel common misconceptions about it. It performs a very similar function that the essays that The Ayn Rand Institute puts out, but while the Institute writes very short articles about current events, these are a bit longer and are in the spirit of the speeches the heroes make in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged but without the story parts (since its in a world we’re already familiar with). It’s a good read as well, although I’d really only recommend it if you’ve already picked up The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and are really into what Ayn Rand says but you still have some specific questions in mind.

Let’s wrap this up with the original question that sparked this entire book-reading frenzy: Is Objectivism right for the Republican party? Absolutely not, and here’s why:

  • As Jennifer Burns says, Objectivism explicitly denies the existence of God, which is in direct contradiction to the Republican viewpoint.
  • While Objectivists and Republicans are traditionally for a government that has minimal involvement in the lives of the individual, Republicans have reversed their viewpoint on this point since the beginning of the Cold War. Republicans since then are all for intervention in foreign countries to “save them from Communism” or to “save them from terrorism” or a million other second-hander reasons, but being for intervention and for reducing the rights of American citizens in order to “protect them” specifically makes them enemies of Objectivists.
  • The previous point makes Republicans second-handers in the eyes of Objectivists, and the fact that both major political parties have essentially become a show with the two parties blaming each other and neither wanting to do anything for fear of having to take responsibility for it makes them both second-handers even more, and thus a terrible fit as allies of Objectivists.
  • Ayn Rand and the Objectivists are pro-business but anti-anything-with-a-board-of-directors, which both books describe as being groups of second-handers who produce nothing, do nothing, and just blame everybody else for their problems and make no profit for their companies. Since Republicans roll in their donations from corporations and have no intention to give it up and stop being second-handers, they’re still a bad fit for Objectivism.

In a nutshell, both major parties in the United States are made of second-handers and are poor choices as candidates that would want to embrace Objectivism. So when major Republicans like Rush Limbaugh embrace Objectivism, I would say to them that maybe they should look at the text a little closer, because it’s not the case that the Democrats are the second-handers and the Republicans are the Objectivists, it’s that they’re both the second-handers stealing from whoever they can to try to stay afloat just another day longer. Republicans: If you really want to embrace Ayn Rand, stop simply quoting her and start doing the things she says it takes to live a virtuous life instead of being just another second-hander. There’s no time like the present.