Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Even Reason is a bit critical of Ayn Rand

It's the 100th anniversary of Ayn Rand's birth.

Yeah, well. With the exception of Daniel Drezner, Libertarians don't make much sense to me. To put it simply, I think we need the authority of the state. It protects minorities, takes charge of social welfare, and regulates business practices. In India, rampant statism did lead to corruption ("License Raj") and also a stagnant environment for business as well as the world of arts and ideas. But it also created the framework for a democratic, generally peaceful, modern society. To the extent that the Indian government is inefficient, that is true because the government is actually too weak (as in under-funded), rather than too strong.

I can understand why many Indians (especially those involved in the high tech industry) want to see less government involvement and regulation. But if the goal is to follow the model of the western democracies, then one can't ignore the fact that those societies are all welfare states with high income tax rates (and high enforcement of those taxes), as well as massive government bureaucracies. The skyline of New York City was built on Unionized Labor, property tax, and building codes and inspections. Capitalism too, but carefully regulated capitalism. It's capitalism checked by the concepts of social contracts, constitutional law, and civil rights.

Thus, I can't get excited about Ayn Rand's centenary, the way many Indian bloggers are (see AnarCapLib). Yazad links to a number of paeans to Rand that have come out in the past couple of days. Certainly, Rand's life story is intriguing -- she lived through the Bolshevik revolution personally, before she came to the U.S.

But I have to say that I prefer the NYT's critical version of Rand to the Cato Institute's.

And I'm pleasantly surprised that even an editor for the Libertarian magazine Reason has some critical things to say about Rand's legacy on today's Day to Day.


Kerim Friedman said...

Yes, I too was surprised at how thoughtful the Reason article was - much more nuanced than I expected.

I was at a conference in India a few weeks ago where I said some of the same things you said, only to be attacked for defending the state by none other than Ashish Nandy. It was a bit of a shock because I like his work and I didn't ever expect to be the object of his scorn, but it turned out well because it afforded an opportunity to meet him and have a pleasant discussion with him afterwards. (I framed my defense of the state in terms of the attack on the state by the American right.) His attack on the state was one much more typical of anarchists than of libertarians, focusing on the violence of the state. I'm always surprised how similar anarchist and libertarian arguments can sound.

Rob Breymaier said...

I think an essay I read by bell hooks speaks to Randism quite well. While not mentioning Rand specifically (nor do I think she even meant to address her), she nonetheless provides insight on how people who have recently become successful often (re)identify themselves with libertarian politics. hooks speaks about a period in her own life where she had these types of feelings -- that she earned her success through hard work and others hadn't earned the same things becuase they didn't work as hard etc. Of course, she wouldn't have written the essay if she didn't later change her viewpoint to a more "interconnected" idea of how one becomes successful.

All that is to say that it makes sense to me that Indians and others from the postcolonial world that have experienced the recent soaring successes in IT, biotech, etc. seem to be natural fits for Objectivism.

This needs more fleshing so maybe I'll post a longer version of this over at the Infinite Diablogue.

Sutton said...

All I know is, the people who seem fondest of Rand are usually, well, rather uninteresting. They're also often the ones who want to tell me about a newspaper— the only newspaper— unafraid to tell the truth (the Washington Times).

Anyway, Whittaker Chambers wrote a pretty brutal review of Rand many years ago:

Amardeep said...


Yes, here in the U.S. libertarians are sort of a "type," though there is a new generation of libertarians involved with computers and technology, who are driven by their passion for free software and open information. And I think it will continue to grow, oddly enough, because of the weird tyranny of Digital Rights Management.

In India, folks are still smarting from the experience of the 1970s and 80s, when the (corrupt) government bureacracy really seemed to be choking the life out of the economy.

The graduated liberalization and privatization of the economy since 1991 has been hugely successful (the Indian economy grew at almost 9 percent last year); I think there is a feeling that even more privatization and liberalization would make things move along even faster. It's still rather difficult to get a license to start a business, for instance.

The limitation of that kind of thinking is that it's exclusively focused on business and the economy. The other essential functions of government kind of drop out of the picture.

And Kerim, that is not so surprising to hear. Nandy is a romantic too, only a different kind (the Gandhian kind). I've met him a couple of times (once at Duke and once at a conference at Oberlin), and I've found him to be a pretty formidable debater. He's even more dangerous when he slips into Punjabi, as he is wont to do when talking to someone like me...