Ayn Rand’s Contributions

Following up on Ilya’s post, I though I’d mention a couple of other contributions Rand made.

First, and as is most evident in Atlas Shrugged, Rand turns Marxism on its head.  While Marxists argue that “capitalists” make their profits on the backs of the working class, Rand illustrates that the working class, as such, makes almost no contribution to wealth, but relies on the efforts, risks, sacrifices, and most of all the genius of the entrepreneurial class.  Consider, as a thought experiment, what living standards would be like if every person in the world had an IQ around the median of 103, and otherwise had average talents and ambition.  Does anyone seriously doubt that “workers,” and everyone else, would be a lot poorer than they are today, and indeed would likely be living as poorly as our hunting and  gathering ancestors?

I should add that Rand’s view on this was not original; very similar views are expressed by William Graham Sumner in What Social Classes Owe to One Another.  But Rand has obviously had a much greater long-term impact than did Sumner (unless a researcher discovers that Rand actually came upon her idea via Sumner).

There is, of course, the danger of taking this insight too far.  The fact that “ideas people” are largely responsible for our wealth doesn’t mean that they necessarily have a moral claim on any given fraction of that wealth.  We all, after all, stand on the shoulders of others, and no matter how brilliant and entrepreneurial someone was living in 1st century North America, he was going to be a lot poorer than the average person in 21st century North America.  Not to mention that without a proper legal system, property rights, etc., supported by the public at large, no amount of genius and talent is going to result in societal wealth.

Also, believers in the welfare state could reasonably claim that at least some social programs, including government-financed schooling, are necessarily to help budding geniuses fulfill their potential.  Surely, many brilliant illiterate immigrants to the U.S. who could have been great entrepreneurs wound up as “workers” only because they lacked educational and other opportunities.

All that said, the radicalism of Rand’s view on this, and its stark contrast to the popularity of crude Marxist ideology based on the view that wealth is somehow just “there” to be exploiting by “capitalists” is quite noteworthy.  Rather than the capitalists living off the workers, the workers, in a sense, are living off the capitalists.

Second, Rand, with her celebration of man’s potential and achievement, has inspired many people to strive to fulfill their potential, including me.  Rand didn’t influence my political views very much; I was already a libertarian when I read her work, and had already read Friedman, Hayek, Nozick, Rothbard, Sowell, and many others.  But she did help change my outlook on life.

I was always a very successful student, but always a very lazy one.  When I arrived in college, my basic career goal was to find an easy but reasonably well-paying job, and do the minimum necessary to maintain it.  I indeed wound up finding a job, in academia, that allows many people to do this.  But in the meantime, reading Rand, along I’m sure with less obvious influences that I can’t identify easily, led me to want to be an achiever, not just a time-server. The glow of Rand’s writing eventually wore off, but I found that I really enjoyed being a scholar, working hard at it, and being good at it.  As a result, I’ve worked much harder in my career than I ever did in high school or college.  And the feeling of satisfaction I get when I work hard and publish something I think worthwhile is far greater than I ever got from my effortless A average in college.

I’ve read over the years about many Rand fans who are not libertarians, who are not interested in “Objectivism” as such, but who feel that her writings–especially The Fountainhead–helped inspire them to be their best.  In some cases, they decided to pursue their dreams, instead of what their parents wanted or expected them to do.  In others, they got out of toxic, abusive relationships with spouses or family and demanded respect as individuals.  In yet others, they simply resolved to do their best in whatever endeavor they chose to pursue, whether a career or parenting or even charitable work.  Despite Rand’s not-too-subtle dislike of homosexuality, I’ve even heard of gays and lesbians who were inspired to embrace their sexual identity by Rand’s celebration of the individual, and rejection of irrational traditional mores.

Of course, Rand has had a destructive influence on many individuals, too.  As her own chaotic personal life, depicted in Anne Heller’s new biography, illustrates, trying to manage one’s personal relationships through a slavish devotion to pure reason, combined with an excessive faith in one’s own ability to reason (and to be objective about oneself and one’s loved ones), is a recipe for disaster.   But I suspect that Rand’s overall influence on how people live their lives is strongly positive.
UPDATE: I should add that I’m likely very unusual in that I found Rand’s life story to be at least as inspirational as her writings–I’ve never been a big fan of The Fountainhead.  To come this country at age 26, knowing little English, and become one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century while holding strikingly unpopular political  and social views is just amazing, more so than anything Howard Roark ever did.