Ayn Rand Didn’t Understand Capitalism. Or Altruism. Or Christianity. Or Reality.

Rand's Philosophy of Objectivism is fatally flawed because it is cut off from reality.

It is true, of course, that self-interest is the engine that drives capitalism. But self-interest is not the same as selfishness, at least not in the way that Rand would use the term. In her novel The Fountainhead, Rand’s protagonists are portrayed as the epitome of the capitalist intellectual hero. In fact, they rarely act less like capitalists, choosing instead to behave like spoiled, egotistical artistes.

 

There once was a time when I was enamored by the philosophy of Ayn Rand. An émigré from the Soviet Union, the influential novelist and founder of Objectivism had an enthusiasm for market capitalism and a hatred of communism that I found entrancing. I discovered her two major philosophical novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, in my early years in college as I was beginning to wake from my enchantment with liberalism. I was instantly hooked.

Rand’s ideas were intriguing, yet she harbored sentiments that made it difficult for a young Christian to accept. She was an atheist who despised altruism and preached the “virtue of selfishness.” She believed that rational self-interest was the greatest good and sang the praises of egoism.

In retrospect, it appears obvious that any attempt to reconcile these ideas with my orthodox evangelicalism was destined to fail. Still, I thought there might be something to the philosophy and was particularly intrigued by her defense of capitalism. My understanding of our economic system was a rather immature, though, and I failed to recognize that Rand had an almost complete misunderstanding of capitalism. She confused self-interest with selfishness.

Many people, of course, share this profound misunderstanding of capitalism. For some peculiar reason they act as if Adam Smith’s invisible hand has the Midas’ touch; that it can alchemically transform the vice of avarice into the great goods of capitalism. Like most proponents of capitalism, Rand never explains how this magical process occurs. Instead she just accepted this sleight of hand as a matter of brute fact.

It is true, of course, that self-interest is the engine that drives capitalism. But self-interest is not the same as selfishness, at least not in the way that Rand would use the term. In her novel The Fountainhead, Rand’s protagonists are portrayed as the epitome of the capitalist intellectual hero. In fact, they rarely act less like capitalists, choosing instead to behave like spoiled, egotistical artistes.

Consider, for example, the novel’s main character, an architect named Howard Roark. In one particularly illuminating passage, Roark is told that his job as an architect, the primary purpose of his work, is to serve his clients. Roark responds by affirming, “I don’t intend to build in order to serve or help anyone. I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build.”

While such egotistical bluster may make for an interesting fictional character, this attitude can hardly be considered a solid foundation for capitalism. As the libertarian economist Mark Skousen observes in a critique of Rand:

the goal of all rational entrepreneurship must be to satisfy the needs of consumers, not to ignore them! Discovering and fulfilling the needs of customers is the essence of market capitalism. Imagine how far a TV manufacturer would get if he decides to build TVs that only tune into his five favorite channels, the consumer be damned. It wouldn’t be long before he would be on the road to bankruptcy.

This leads us to one of the primary misunderstandings held by many of Rand’s admirers. Although she is widely praised for her defense of the capitalism (she was famous for wearing a gold broach in the shape of a dollar sign), she viewed it as subservient to a greater ideal:

I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows. This—the supremacy of reason—was, is and will be the primary concern of my work, and the essence of Objectivism. (“The Objectivist”, September 1971)

On this point Rand is quite mistaken. Reason, applied consistently, doesn’t lead us down a straight path to egoism, much less to capitalism. Examined closely, we would find that her entire Objectivist philosophy is founded on this simple question begging premise. Rand, of course, would claim that it was a self-evident truth. But this requires us to believe that no one who ever came to a different conclusion was following reason where it leads. She might have no problem accepting such a conclusion—Rand was never one to tolerate dissent—but we don’t have sufficient justification for doing so.

 

 

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