Last week, PolicyMic pundit Susan Kraykowski wrote an article explaining how Ayn Rand’s philosophy of selfishness has influenced libertarian policies, calling into question the credibility of politicians who seriously buy into the work of a self-proclaimed philosopher who is so incredibly easy to ridicule.
Commenters were quick to point out that the word “selfishness” has a very specific definition in the philosophy of Rand, more in line with the idea of integrity than its negative connotation of gaining at the expense of others. Regardless of interpretation, the idea that libertarians are selfish seems false when one remembers that the extremism of their beliefs is not a product of malice toward the poor, rather, a belief that their vision will benefit them. Valid or not, good intentions are there.
Kraykowski’s citing of Rand seems to be evidence of a bigger issue at hand. As a left-leaning person who enjoyed Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, I’m always quite surprised at the demonization of her works. Sure, many point to the popularity of her works as giving rise to the greed-based philosophies of controversial banks such as Goldman Sachs, and sure, many people who discover her works have a tendency to become really insufferable, but justification for questionable actions aside, I believe that her works offer great advice about the value of integrity, hard work, and artistic vision. I’ll even go as far as saying that many champions of Rand – especially in the financial sector – don’t and have never acted with genuine intentions in regards to Rand’s protagonists and philosophies.
To illustrate, two of the principle characters of The Fountainhead are Peter Keating, an architect who derives all of his value from external validations such as money, prestige, and the respect of others, and Howard Roark, an architect who represents Rand’s ideal of selfishness and individualism. Whereas Peter’s modus operandi is to schmooze his way to fame, success, and riches, Roark’s only purpose for existence is to create the greatest and most efficient buildings that mankind has ever seen – even if the world is not yet ready for them and alienates him for it. In fact, Roark is so shunned by society that he ends up going broke and is forced to do backbreaking work at a granite quarry for 62 cents an hour. Does Roark’s tale of unheeding integrity and artistic vision embody the Wall Street mentality of swindling banks out of hundreds of millions of dollars?
Rand even speaks out against these actions herself, stating, “isn’t that the root of every despicable action? Not selfishness, but precisely the absence of a self? Look at them, the man who cheats and lies, but preserves a respectable front. He knows himself to be dishonest, but others think he’s honest and he derives his self-respect from that.” She even indicts “the man whose sole aim is to make money,” claiming that, “what they want is ostentation: to show, to stun, to entertain, to impress others.” She labels these folks “second-handers” much the same way that the rich, in the name of Rand, have claimed the poor to be “second-handers.”
How can a woman whose protagonist espouses the ideal of individualism and speaks against the falseness of materialism be vilified for corrupting a nation into its present state of great selfishness? Is it possible that Ayn Rand’s philosophy has been misunderstood for years? It’s not farfetched to assume that this is possible.
Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch was used in propaganda to support the Nazi idea of the master race despite Nietzsche’s stance against pan-Germanism and anti-Semitism. It wasn’t until 50 years after his death that Walter Kaufmann cleared this misunderstanding of Nietzsche and revived interest in his writings. If you read any of the hyperlinked articles above, notice that the arguments are not focused on the validity of Rand’s ideals of individualism, but of the ridiculousness of people who act ridiculously in her name (which also include herself).
There’s one real world example of someone who closely embodies the ideals of Rand, and it’s someone who is admired by conservatives and liberals alike: Steve Jobs.
Like Roark’s character, he was a visionary whose purpose extended beyond money, prestige, fame, and valued creation above all. Like Roark’s modernist approach to architecture in the novel, Jobs’ products often challenged industry norms and ultimately changed them forever. Like Roark’s period of destitution, failure in the eyes of the public never stopped Jobs from creating, and he was the foremost innovator at the end of his life. Such was the tale of Howard Roark.
Is Ayn Rand one of the most misunderstood philosophers of all time? Maybe, but even if so, the ability to tear her character and her follower's characters down with such ease will always work against her. But even if so, I believe it’s time to set the record straight: Rand isn’t to blame for the greedy selfishness of our culture. The people who cling to her name as a means to justify their greedy selfishness are.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons