Posted on August 25, 2012 by Nicolas McGinnis
“I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff.”
That’s Paul Ryan, Republican vice-presidential candidate, in a 2005 speech delivered at The Atlas Society–one of many lavishly funded organizations devoted to spreading the thought and philosophy of Ayn Rand (he’s since distanced himself).
There are so many of these organizations it is hard to keep track. Apart from the Atlas Society, there is the Ayn Rand Institute, the Nathaniel Branden Institute, the Anthem Foundation and the Institute for Objectivist Studies. Numerous libertarian think-tanks, like the Cato Institute, promote Rand. Campus groups–which receive funding from objectivist foundations–are everywhere, promoting Rand via slick newsletters (like The Undercurrent: “Obama wants to use Blakely’s earnings to cover the bill for thousands of less productive citizens’ flu shots and groceries,” a typical line reads–Blakely is the noble, visionary entrepreneur who created Spanx.)
fig. 2. To hell with your ‘flu shots,’ parasites.
The fantastically rich find in Rand’s celebration of individual achievement a kindred spirit, and support her work with pecuniary enthusiasm: in 1999, McGill University turned down a million-dollar endowment from wealthy businessman Gilles Tremblay, who had given the money in the hopes of creating a chair dedicated to the the study of her work. Then-president Bernard Shapiro commented that “we can’t just sell our souls just for the sake of being richer,” hopefully aware of the irony: what else is there but getting richer? Rand literally ends her most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, with the dollar sign replacing the sign of the cross, traced in the air–indicating the dawn of a new, bold, daringly sophomoric era.
Rand’s books have sold in the millions, never quite losing steam in the half-century since publication. A now-infamous Library of Congress survey placed Atlas Shrugged as the second-most influential book in America, trailing only the Bible–a dubious pairing, perhaps, given Rand’s militant atheism, but one that indeed captures the uneasy tension of contemporary America: the celebrated Protestant ethic versus the spirit of capitalism.
Despite her popular appeal, perennially best-selling books, and the breathless testimonial of politicians, actors and businessmen–Ryan is scarcely alone in his praise–professional academics almost universally disdain Rand. An online poll by widely-read philosophy professor and blogger Brian Leiter had Ayn Rand elected the one thinker who “brings the most disrepute on to our discipline by being associated with it,” by a landslide. She is almost never taught in classrooms. Her name elicits jeers and funny, exasperated tales of fierce, bright undergraduates under her spell arguing her case for hours on end.
This near-unanimous rejection has led to some remarkably uncharitable, and bizarre, attempts to explain away the lack of academic interest: in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Rand, its authors write that “her advocacy of a minimal state with the sole function of protecting negative individual rights is contrary to the welfare statism of most academics,” claiming outright that the overwhelming majority of professional philosophers and political theorists have been simply unable to fairly evaluate her work because of the biasing factor of their prior political commitments.
Somehow the same ‘welfare statism’ of academics has not prevented the close study of Robert Nozick’s landmark Anarchy, State and Utopia, a sophisticated libertarian text that mounts an original, and far more effective, argument against redistributive policies. Apart from John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, there is perhaps no more commonly-assigned book in undergraduate political philosophy classes.
Surely there must be some other reason for Rand’s academic neglect. The authors of the SEP entry do go on to suggest an additional number of largely psychological hypotheses having to do with Rand’s dogmatic tone, cult-like following, and emphasis on popular fiction–never entertaining the possibility that professional philosophers think her work is, quite simply, of poor quality. Objectively, ahem, speaking…
Continue reading: The System that Wasn’t There: Ayn Rand’s Failed Philosophy (and why it matters) -Nicholas McGinnis | The Rotman Institute of Philosophy.