A Randy Generation

April 4, 2011


"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

I am continually amazed that thinking adults are attracted to the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and I shudder to think how influential this philosophy has been among the prominent and powerful in this country since the Reagan Administration. Alan Greenspan was one of the first high public officers to sing the praises of Ayn Rand, and now we have a veritable choral homage consisting of voices like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and others. Both explicitly and implicitly, Objectivist free market libertarianism is one of the strong animating forces for a large swath of the Tea Party movement. Rand called her philosophy “Objectivism,” by which she basically meant eschewing anything not immediately apparent and visible–anything not “objective.” But more than that, it is a philosophy that promotes naked self-interest and “free market exchange” to the level of virtue, perhaps even the highest good of all.

There are any number of directions from which Rand’s Objectivism can be criticized. As just one example, we can look at it through eyes informed by the work of Laurence Kohlberg on moral development (as well as a number of other researchers in that field of study.) From this perspective we see that as a social philosophy, Rand’s Objectivism (and free market libertarianism in general) is stuck in an adolescent stage of moral development (Kohlberg’s Level 1, Stage 2). This moral stage of development, based on an orientation of self-interest, is quite appropriate for teenagers, but not for adults. We expect adults to mature beyond an adolescent stage of moral development, coming to see the wisdom in having people curtail their adolescent sense of “freedom” in favor of the good of society as a whole, recognizing their connections to all other members of society, and investing their energies in the good of future generations. Objectivist free market libertarianism is directly destructive of the delicate social fabric, which consists mainly of our shared sense of shared connection.

We can surely tolerate those adults who never do mature beyond an adolescent sense of social morality. It’s a free country, after all. But why in God’s name would we envision a “good society” as one in which teenagers or people of teenage moral philosophy are in control? This is exactly why other people of the world speak of the USA as very “immature” in their thinking, as teenagers armed with big weapons.

As mentioned above, Kohlberg ranked this type of moral thinking as the second stage of level one morality – that is, step 2 out of a possible 6, with levels 3 and 4 representing conventional citizen level of moral thinking. That is, steps 3 and 4 represent the minimum levels most adults in the society need to reach just in order for the society of have a stable future. Step 2 is below that threshold. To the extent that Kohlberg is correct, we have to say that the rise of Rand’s Objectivist free-market libertarianism as a pervasive guiding social philosophy since the Reagan years represents clear moral BACKSLIDING, moving backwards not forwards, in terms of our society’s social morality, and does not bode well for our future.



  1. Nothing surprises me about the willingness of people to justify questionable beliefs. We are in a world where bullies and selfishness often “win.”

    • Unfortunately, that is true. But does it have to be so?

  2. One major consequence of this Stage 2 development among adults is that their identity becomes tied up in the “success” achieved in the material world. I’m think of a developer I met who espouses Rand’s view. How convince such a one that we need sustainable development so that all species can live, including the human animal? Then, we those in the chemical, biological, nuclear, and social fields.

    • Good observation. Thanks!

  3. As I was reading I had a thought in the back of my head. Then I scrolled down and saw the link to the Randian CEO–and that was my thought exactly. Our entire corporate culture at work seems right out of the pages of her books.

    • Great minds think alike?!

  4. Excellent “Normal Dan”!
    This is my first serious foray on the EBF website, and I think I’m going to like it! Rand was a second rate intellect and–as you very aptly pointed out– a moral adolescent. One would think that Rand’s prolonged sexual liaison with a married man while she was also married would warrant condemnation by the likes of Glenn Beck, but apparently not. I don’t care about her sex life, but her lack of intellectual seriousness should have relegated her writings to obscurity long ago.
    Philip Hansten

    • Welcome Phil!

  5. This comment is way too late, but I’d like to leave it here to uphold a very important point, for anyone wishing to read it. Most people misunderstand the work of Rand, thinking it promotes selfishness and neglects the good of the community as a whole.

    However, Rand promotes selfishness in order to benefit the entire society. If everyone was accountable for their own lives, and did their best to work hard, it would definitely reduce a lot of the “problems” in the society.

    Almost every major religion promotes this, whether it’s Christianity, Hinduism, Islam or Judaism – the man who earns his bread is more religious than the one who simply spends his time in worship.

    Rand, towards the end of one of her books, focuses entirely on the commitment to a moral code. And if everyone were able to keep a commitment to this moral code, the society would not need any help.

    Rand emphasized that the “struggle against suffering” is valuable, and suffering by itself has no value. If anyone has lived in one of the third-world countries, the validity of this statement become quite apparent where beggars make more money than those who earn their bread, as my own personal experience has taught me.

    I myself have been involved in heavy charity work in India out of strong desire to better the situation here, and have been disheartened to find out that most efforts of “charity” where one hands over alms to the poor, is detrimental to the society. Not before long, you see the “poor” whiling away time on the streets gambling with money from begging and drinking cheap alcoholic drinks to their heart’s content, while industry is faced with a severe lack of labour supply. They misuse the government’s effort to help them, by renting out shelters made for them and instead sleeping on the streets – to have a good time without any effort.

    If one were to be “non-objective”, valuing feelings more than reason, one would “help” them with alms, only to magnify these ills. However, a “man of reason” would help them too, not by giving them alms, but by “educating” them to care for themselves by providing education or by providing jobs.

    It’s so much more enriching to be involved in social work that ensures a good education for underprivileged children – an education where they are taught that with hard work nothing is unattainable, and then it’s simply exciting how much effort these children put into shaping their own futures.

    The most helpful men in the society, atleast here in India, are the local business tycoons. They give their neighbours and their people “jobs”, mostly in foreign countries where they run their businesses. If one of them employs 1000 men, then that ensures the financial independence of atleast a 1000 families, and about 5000 people.

    As Richard Branson said in his interview, Capitalist Philanthropy is the way to go – I’ve lived enough in a state with a Marxist rule to know of its evils. Branson’s Virgin employs approximately 50000 people in 34 countries, and add to that the large number of families dependent on these individuals, and the other businesses employing people that thrive as suppliers to Virgin. What better charity than to enable the poor to earn their own money – boosting a man’s self-esteem, and that in itself is a charity that no other form of charity could claim to achieve. This is the core philosophy of Rand’s.

    Maybe her view towards sex and relationships might have been an excuse for her shortcomings, or they might not. But whatever it is, any person capable of thinking and exploring an idea without considering it offending will find Rand’s work, atleast mostly, reasonable.

    • I appreciate the calm and reasonable way that Allan disagreed with Dan Liechty, but I disagree with some of Allan’s points.

      1. Rand theorized that promoting selfishness would benefit society, but the real question is whether this approach actually works in practice. Selfishness can take many forms, from a productive “enlightened” self-interest to a destructive “predatory” version. Even if Rand promoted the former, her followers tend to engage in the latter. One need only look at the Paul Ryan budget to see how Rand’s philosophy plays out in true predatory fashion.

      2. Allan says the poor in India often abuse the charity provided to them. This is not surprising; there are miscreants at all social levels from paupers to billionaires. But there is a perception by conservatives in the U.S. that most people receiving government help are lazy and don’t want work (i.e., Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” driving Cadillacs). I do not think the evidence bears this out. When a business advertises a few jobs (even low paying ones), hundreds of people apply. Most people don’t want charity; they want a job, affordable health care, food, shelter, and a good education for their children.

      3. I agree that Marxism—especially the Soviet version—was a total failure, but Marxism is a straw man in this discussion. Only in the make-believe world of the tea-party is this a realistic possibility for the U.S. The alternative to our current predatory capitalism is not Marxism but liberal democratic capitalism (The Netherlands would be a good example). I have spent considerable time in The Netherlands over the past 30 years, and compared to the U.S. their citizens have better health care, education, child care, elder care, transportation, civil liberties, freedom from crime, aesthetic sense, and on and on. (Their weather is just as bad as Seattle’s, however!)

      4. Allan says business tycoons in India are the most helpful men in society. Perhaps we should ship a bunch of them over here to the U.S. to replace our business tycoons, because most of ours are not helpful to society at all. In fact—from the Wall Street crooks to the banksters who profit while driving us into financial ruin to the grasping plutocrats such as the Koch brothers who control our elections and promote global warming denial—they are ruining our society.

      5. My strongest disagreement with Allan’s post, however, is on the issue of suffering. Allan says, “Rand emphasized that the ‘struggle against suffering’ is valuable, and suffering itself has no value.” Unfortunately, by saying that suffering itself has no value Rand reveals a stunning ignorance of the human condition. Friedrich Nietzsche understood suffering on both personal and philosophical levels, and manifestly surpassed Rand as a thinker, writer, and as a moral human being. He endured almost constant suffering as an adult, and developed penetrating insights into the necessity of suffering for a flourishing human life. Indeed, virtually every deep thinker in history has made this same observation. This doesn’t mean one should seek suffering or succumb without resistance, but failing to appreciate the fundamentally tragic nature of human existence is itself a tragedy. As poet Kalil Gibran said, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” I summarized these ideas in a commencement address a few years ago: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWEsIF7yk_4

      Overall, I think Rand’s teachings are not helpful. Humans are selfish enough as it is without being encouraged to be more so, and anyone who does not realize that selfishness and greed create much human misery just hasn’t been paying attention over the past 2 or 3 decades. The current Rand idolatry among conservatives reminds me of John Kenneth Galbraith’s comment, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

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