why the specter of objectivism is still with us

Ayn Rand claimed to defend capitalism. So why were her heroes such terrible businesspeople with no idea how companies actually work and make money?
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Illustration by James Ng

Having written for a business magazine and with a background that includes business school (though in my defense, I mostly studied statistics and social science), I just have to indulge my guilty pleasure of taking on a business topic once in a while. Last time, it was Megan McArdle’s attempt to defend banks from their share of the blame for selling exotic financial products with wild abandon. Today’s segue is inspired by Adam Kirsch and his recent column in the NYT about the legacy of Ayn Rand in the modern conservative movement. Since business writers are no strangers to advocates of Randism and their conspiratorial bent to see collectivism and socialism menacingly lurking everywhere they look, business sites frequently get a rush of comments by those who see themselves as the enlightened defenders of capitalism from the forces of nefarious liberals.

However, there’s a slight snag in their loving references of Rand’s parables about the glory that is capitalism and it comes in the form of her best known protagonists, Howard Roark and John Galt. They’re painted as the flawless and perfect embodiments of rationality and reasonable self-interest, and their actions are supposed to illuminate the progress and innovation of capitalism set against the entitlement and greed of collectivism in all its forms. But lets consider the famous excerpt from John Galt’s 70 page (!) speech which Kirsch uses as a starting point for his opening thoughts…

“We have granted you everything you demanded of us, we who had always been the givers, but have only now understood it,” Galt lectures the looters and moochers who make up the populace. “We have no demands to present you, no terms to bargain about, no compromise to reach. You have nothing to offer us. We do not need you.”

Actually, yes. You do. The very public that’s grossly caricatured as greedy, entitled vultures in Rand’s novels in the clumsiest of ways, is in reality what keeps the businesspeople and innovators she raised on pedestals in demand and rewards them for their services. And when her heroes fail to realize that their gifts as artists and inventors can be put to good use if only they learned how to negotiate and work with their clients and bosses, they ultimately succeed as ideologues while failing as businessmen. In the real world, Roark’s style would’ve found its followers and by being an approachable human being, he would’ve won plenty of business. Even if a machine designed by Galt was used for charitable purposes, his expertise would’ve been invaluable and next time he would’ve been up for a raise or a new contract, he would be in a position of strength in his company.

Instead, Rand presents those who work with the public and provide services people actually want (you know, like real capitalists do every day), ending up as miserable husks of human beings who lose all meaning and peace in their lives. She sets up a world of demagogues and black and white extremes where none exist. In the Randian realm, it’s the experts and innovators the public seeks that become entitled ideological bouncers who want people to recognize how great and wonderful they are. And just to add insult to injury, the world they occupy encourages both the characters and the readers to consider self-aggrandizing swagger and stubborn obstructionism for ideology’s sake as a great thing. With no talent for being actual businessmen who could be successes in the world of commerce, her übermensch are basically nothing more than snobs.

That’s one of the reasons why the Randian dogma was and is still so addictive for many. By reading the huge tomes, appreciating them, and quoting them, you become one of the elite and gifted disciples of free market, capitalism and “rational self-interest.” And you don’t even have to accomplish anything to earn the right to be a member of the gifted elite. Just remember to tell the people who see through the rouse that they’re too stupid, or stubborn, or the Objectivists’ favorite cliché, intellectually dishonest to appreciate Rand’s work on the level that only the brilliant minds of the elect can. It never works, but you’ll get to feel special about yourself. Whether you’re actually promoting capitalism or just ideological snobbery can be a secondary consideration.

# politics // ayn rand / books / business / capitalism


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