Philosophy Weekend: Ayn Rand in the News (Paul Ryan, Adam Curtis)

There’s been an explosion of popular interest in the novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand lately, and not only because I wrote a book called Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong and Why It Matters (which, I’m happy to report, is selling quite well). Rand died nearly three decades ago, but her Objectivist philosophy has made headlines for two different reasons in the past couple of weeks.

She’s been a sore point lately for Republican Congressman and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, an avowed admirer. Several Christian groups have been asking why a conservative politician with “family values” credentials would admire and follow the work of a stringent atheist with provocatively modern ideas. Ryan, a Catholic, claims not to be influenced by Rand’s dislike of religion, but this answer does not seem to be satisfying his critics. A group called the American Values Network has begun targeting both Rand and Ryan in television commercials, and the Congressman was caught in a “gotcha” video dodging a persistent critic who tries to give him a Bible while asking “why did you choose to model your budget after the extreme ideology of Ayn Rand, rather than on the basis of economic justice and values in the Bible?” Time Magazine calls this Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand Problem.

I can’t help feeling some satisfaction here. I generally try to be sympathetic towards the ideas of those I disagree with, but I’m appalled by Paul Ryan’s recent proposal to replace Medicare with vouchers for private insurance (fortunately, most of the United States of America seems to agree with me, though the Republican Party can’t seem to make up it’s mind where it stands on Medicare). The fact that Ryan would rather see the destruction of a health care system that helps senior citizens than allow the federal government to increase taxes on millionaires and billionaires tells me all I need to know about Paul Ryan’s priorities as a politician, and casts doubt on both his moral judgment and his common sense. I can barely think of another current politician I dislike more than Paul Ryan.

On the other hand, Paul Ryan’s philosophical bent and affection for Ayn Rand is probably the most (perhaps only) likable thing about him. I don’t agree with Ayn Rand’s ethical philosophy, and I don’t agree with her atheism. I enjoy watching Paul Ryan get harassed by a Bible-thumping young conservative in the video above, but I wish the Bible-thumping young conservative were more offended by Ryan’s anti-Medicare proposals than by his quirky affection for a controversial ethical philosopher. Oh well! I’ll take my satisfaction wherever I can get it these days.

I’ve also been hearing a lot of positive buzz about a British television series called All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. This is the work of Adam Curtis, who has tackled controversial psychology/culture subjects like the influence of Sigmund Freud in previous BBC shows. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace stirs up the idea that computer technology is turning us into automotons, and that the ideological work of various scientific-minded “visionaries” of the 20th century has led us down this dangerous path.

This is a three-part series, and among the scientists, software innovators and pop psychologists that face Curtis’s critique in the second and third parts are Arthur Tansley, who invented the word “ecosystem”, Norbert Weiner, R. Buckminster Fuller, Stewart Brand, William Hamilton, Dian Fossey and Richard Dawkins. The first episode, though, is devoted almost entirely to Ayn Rand and her prize student Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve Board chairman who presided over the expansion of hedge-fund-based speculation that led to the disastrous economic crash of 2007 and 2008.

It’s a riveting episode, well worth watching (via the YouTube link above if you don’t have direct access to the BBC). I do agree with Adam Curtis that Randian Objectivism must have influenced Greenspan’s hyper-capitalistic, profit-friendly (and ultimately toxic) economic policies (though, as many Objectivists have argued, the line of influence here is indirect). But I’m a little puzzled by the show’s emphasis on innovations in computer technology– Curtis, the narrator of the show, often spits the word “computers” out with palpable venom — as the prime cause of hedge-fund mania.

Curtis is correct that computers made the type of precision “risk management” that crashed the economy possible, and he’s also correct that a naive confidence in computer-based data modeling led to the dangerous ideas that esoteric financial structures could actually eliminate risk from investment (as if such a thing could ever be possible). Still, it’s odd to hear Curtis speak of computers with such obvious dislike, as if they were responsible for nothing in the past twenty years except for the invention of advanced derivative trading. In my own life, computer technology has been a liberating force, and an enabler of creative expression. I’m sure most viewers will also disagree with this part of the show’s message, a weak link in an otherwise strong and illuminating chain of ideas.

I’ve noted before that different identity groups seem to have come up with wildly varying ideas about who or what to blame for the economic crash of 2007/2008. Some conservative thinkers place the primary blame on over-eager home buyers who couldn’t maintain their mortgage payment schedules. Adam Curtis blames computers for making hedge funds possible. I continue to feel strongly that the real culprit was the financial deregulation that took place between the Reagan, Bush and Clinton presidencies. During these decades, a fantasy took root that a deregulated financial industry would remain honest and stable. Blame the computers? No, I blame the government leaders who gave in to the Wall Street lobby’s pleas for a regulation-free banking, investment and insurance system that would increase profits and generate extreme wealth (while also, unfortunately, risking a financial disaster that would hurt the middle class far more than it would hurt the wealthy).

I’m also not sure that Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace fairly represents Ayn Rand’s philosophies (Rand, it seems to me, would never have felt comfortable with the collectivist impulses of most starry-eyed California tech-utopians). Still, though, it’s a fascinating series full of many nuggets of surprising information. It also contains a few strange coincidences of personal interest for me. The title comes from a poem by the hippie writer Richard Brautigan, a big favorite of mine (he died just as the computer revolution was taking shape, so this is a bit of a sideways glance). The episode on Ayn Rand also includes interviews with several Silicon Alley and Silicon Valley executives of the 1990s who were influenced by Ayn Rand, and I was quite surprised to find among them Kevin O’Connor of DoubleClick, who I met several times during the Silicon Alley days, and wrote about (not very flatteringly) in my memoir of the dot-com years. I had no idea that Kevin O’Connor was a Randian. I wonder if he’s a Paul Ryan supporter too.

21 Responses

  1. Rationally, the best way to
    Rationally, the best way to serve our self-interests is to recognize that in addition to a self-consciousness we also have a communal- consciousness, related to empathy and mirror neurons, and by that by making our communities better we improve our individual lives by quantum measures we could never achieve alone.

  2. The thing about Curtis (and
    The thing about Curtis (and I’m a fan of his work) is that, while he’s absolutely spot on with certain connections, he’s often wildly general with others. Take also the insinuation in that first installment in which Curtis suggests of Clinton, “it was as if the President had nothing to do.” All thanks to computers. But I think he’s more quietly damning of how Loren Carpenter’s group Pong experiment became, much like Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, the basis for a perfect society living up to the libertarian ideal. And that is likely what he means by “computers” (in much the same way that Ken Auletta means “engineers” in his excellent history of Google). He’s much clearer on the subject in the second installment, which is more philosophical and gets into cybernetics and communes.

  3. Levi, I don’t believe that
    Levi, I don’t believe that computers have anything more to do with the economic miscalculations and disasters than they do with any accurate models and predictions. The miscalculations are those of the economists, who programmed the predictions in a way that served big company interests and their own misguided theoretical models. In fact, it’s disheartening to see how many economists have been rewarded in the academia, and attained prestigious university or government positions, even after their economic models and predictions have been shown to be completely inaccurate and led, at least indirectly, to disaster. Economics should be a pragmatic field. If your models and theories are inaccurate, you shouldn’t be rewarded for it. All this can’t be blamed on Rand or on any other writer and philosopher. It’s more closely related to the way in which economics has become a “theoretical” rather than pragmatic field in the academia, rewarded for “elegant theories” that have little relation to reality, and to the influence of big business upon economic schools of thoughts and models, which skew them in their interest.

  4. All politicians lead secret
    All politicians lead secret lives and personalities. Who they convey themselves as is 90 percent bs, so it doesn’t surprise Ryan is a closet atheist.

  5. Jarvis makes a good point.
    Jarvis makes a good point. Every candidate who runs for President has got to say something about their faith in God, whether it’s true or not.

    You know, the Republicans hijacked Christianity back when Reagan ran against Carter. Carter was the first President, as far as I know, to publicly use the term “born again,” but then the right wing picked and chose whatever passages from the Bible backed up their platform. I may be accused of over-generalizing here, but the right-winger Christianity means fighting wars for God, seeing AIDS as God’s punishment for homosexuality, classifying abortion as murder, and the death penalty. The left wing Christians believe in feeding the hungry, forgiveness, and peace.

  6. What a joke.

    What a joke.

    Ryan’s Bible-thumping critic said: “why did you choose to model your budget after the extreme ideology of Ayn Rand, rather than on the basis of economic justice and values in the Bible?”

    Are you kidding? Have these folks been living in a cave or something? The Republican is based on Randian principles of laissez-faire capitalism / corporatism. From wiki: “Objectivism holds that the only social system which fully recognizes individual rights is capitalism, specifically what Rand described as “full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism.”

    If these Bible-thumpers suddenly want to get self-righteous about Biblical “values of economic justice” (whatever that means), then why do they keep voting these full-on corporatists into power? Because they’re better at pandering to the hard core (bigoted, at times) “evangelical” social agenda, perhaps? Sheesh.

  7. Ah another Asher klassic:
    Ah another Asher klassic: “(Sort of pretending to hate) Ayn Rand is my Aeroplane”. IN big print and ebonics for the Litkicks cognitively challenged.

  8. Yes, mnaz, although most of
    Yes, mnaz, although most of them would never admit it, I believe many right-wing Bible-thumper tend toward bigotry. Separation of the races, you know. And they call their big corporate bailouts “blessings.”

  9. It’s about time somebody
    It’s about time somebody showed up to heckle me, “Ezra Hound” — so what else you got?

  10. Also, Jarvis, I wouldn’t say
    Also, Jarvis, I wouldn’t say it necessarily follows that Ryan is a “closet atheist” simply because he touts Rand’s philosophy. The two things are not directly related.

  11. Well I am glad to see that
    Well I am glad to see that you at least call into question Adam Curtis’s attack on Silicon Valley. (Don’t you have some background in computers?)

    But Curtis goes much deeper than to attack people’s overdependence on automation, or on the results that computers spit out.

    What Curtis is attacking is the thing that computers were built to actuate. The modern digital computer is just the latest invention built to run processes that were once run by machines and before that by rooms full of people. Curtis is attacking logic.

    Furthermore, in his attack against the California Ideology he is attacking all the great achievements of the end of the 20th century. The internet, cell phones, the democratization of information and publication are bad things to Curtis and the British Broadcasting Corporation. They prefer central control.

    “We have come to believe that the old hierarchies of power can be replaced by self organizing networks.”

    At the base of this documentary is a refutation of the very ideas that led to the American Revolution.

    In several of Curtis’s documentaries he bends over backwards to show that people cannot control themselves and are better left being controlled by a trusted few. This view was refuted by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, not just the California Ideology.

    Also, as the film point out in the film (I am shocked that they can disprove their assertion in the same film and still let the assertion stand) Greenspans failure happened when and to the extent that he abandoned Rand’s principles. Is this not worth mentioning by you or Curtis or the BBC? Is this some small side note? They state clearly and with full visual stimulation that Greenspan was lowering interest rates to help Clinton evade the Monica Lewinski mess.

    Greenspan’s problem was caused when he ran the Fed as a charity instead of a selfish business!!! And it states that in the documentary.

    This is why Curtis attacks logic, so that he can come to such illogical conclusions.

    When the BBC makes such poorly reasoned assertions to attack the concept of the individual, of self-governance, and of rational thinking you know that things are getting desparate across the pond. They must be afraid that Rand’s thinking will finally reach into the cloistered hall’s of the University of London.

  12. Good to hear from you again,
    Good to hear from you again, Mark Stouffer.

    Yeah, shows like this prove just how varied and multi-faceted the reaction to Ayn Rand’s philosophy can be. Adam Curtis does not believe in her philosophy and neither do I … but I don’t agree with Adam Curtis’s objections to Ayn Rand anymore than I agree with Ayn Rand.

    Likewise, many American religious conservatives also disagree with Ayn Rand, for entirely different reasons, and I don’t relate to their objections either.

    I guess that’s the mark of a powerful (if wrong) philosopher — she’s taking it from all sides! I’ll give her credit for sparking good discussions, if little else.

    Just a few comments in response to Mark Stouffer: first, I don’t think you can characterize Adam Curtis’s assertions as “the BBC’s” assertions. They are Adam Curtis’s assertions, period.

    Finally, about Alan Greenspan, when Curtis or I tie Greenspan’s approach to economics to his past as a Randian, we are speaking of her philosophy’s most general characteristic — the embrace of a vigorous, unfettered and unregulated capitalism. It really doesn’t matter to me (or, I think, to Curtis) whether or not Greenspan considered himself a card-carrying Randian at any point in his career. The coincidence that a) she preached extreme capitalism, b) he was her follower and close friend in his younger years and c) he later practiced extreme capitalism on a global level, with disastrous results, speaks for itself.

  13. I might only have enough time
    I might only have enough time to answer one at a time.

    “Yeah, shows like this prove just how varied and multi-faceted the reaction to Ayn Rand’s philosophy can be.”

    I have noticed this myself. I have been rather quiet about Rand for a couple of decades, just reading and learning. Lately, as I have seen so much of what she spoke of come to pass, I have tried warning my acquaintances of the philosophical breakdown the West is facing.

    As I presented Rand’s ideas to the religious right and the atheist left and many others I have noticed one thing: Her position is perpendicular to all of them. What I have reasoned from this, rather intuitively and this is no proof, is that Rand’s position is like the center of an island in a stormy sea. Civilizations have been traveling past this central truth for millennial but always overshoot. All projected paths of knowledge run perpendicular to the central truth which we are afraid to accept. That is why Rand can be ringed around by critics, all of them pointing past her to the critic behind her.

  14. And one thing I should
    And one thing I should mention is that Rand’s vision of a rational world is not at all cold, meaningless, robotic, or devoid of tremendous emotion.

    I say this because of the phrase ‘the central truth which we are afraid to accept’. Everyone I speak to starts to imagine a meaningless, predestined, deterministic life. Without hope. Without feeling.

    Then you imagine a final death with no ‘do over’ life and you say, ‘who wants to believe in that?’ I know!!! I used to think that. And so for a long time I wondered why I would tell people such ideas. To cheer them up?

    But here is the cool part… it’s all actually here… right now. All the stuff you actually love. All the stuff that’s real. And you are a part of it. You exist! Yay!!!!! And you will go on existing… until a time when you won’t anymore. But after that you don’t have to be there. Just like you are not in Iran right now. You don’t have to be there. Someone else will handle that. That’s what they’re there for. Maybe you will benefit from hearing their stories.

    If time is a dimension then being stretched through infinite time would be incompatible with life. I think that heaven and eternal life are not even things. They are an avoidance of a thing. You can’t really give a believable description of eternal life accept by describing it as the opposite of death. But life is not just the opposite of death. Life is a story. Can you imagine a story that doesn’t end?

    Rand’s description of final causality aren’t nearly as dreary as a Heaven where all we know is nothing bad ever happens there. What the heck does happen?

    Anyway we won’t be here, leisurely chatting on the internet, googling the latest youtube videos, and checking our Facebook, in other words whatever we want. We know we won’t be able to see the computer screens as we watch down over people because computer screens are too ungodly for angels to watch. Angels are not tech-savvy.

    That is just a reassuring welcome mat on the doorstep of reality that I thought I should lay down for people still considering their options.

  15. “…Adam Curtis’s assertions
    “…Adam Curtis’s assertions as “the BBC’s” assertions. They are Adam Curtis’s assertions, period.”

    You really think this landed aristocracy of broadcast media had nothing to do with this lampooning of the hi-tech history? Did they coin, “California Ideology”? Are they jealous because we invented the computer?

    The BBC is a groundbreaking, bullet proof reliable, world renowned, shortwave broadcasting, information utility of historic proportions, lineage, and usefulness.

    The Brits love their castles. They just want to build a mote around themselves. Then comes the English longbow.

    And I doubt that the BBC was unaware of this philosophical critique of virtually every great advancement and improvement to our lives that has arisen out of the last quarter of the 20th century and more importantly the beginning of the 3rd millennium.

    I am including the internet that we are reading this on. The ability to communicate with such great convenience was a fantastic dream when I was young.

    Curtis makes mocking intonations whenever he says the words freedom, rational, believe, individual, or self. He has several videos where he talks about what a waste of time the internet and computers and all that wonderful information theory and network theory, and cognitive science that we learned from these complex systems we build, is.

    But most importantly, as we prepare to celebrate the signing of a document severing the ties with the government, and the form of government, that produced the philosophy behind this documentary, I’d like to point out the blind spot this doc has to the concepts that underlay the foundations of this nation.


    “It was a vision of society where the old forms of political control would be unnecessary. Because computer networks could could create order in society without central control. this had never happened before. Because at the heart of Western political thought there had always been a fear that if you allowed individuals too much control, you would get anarchy.”

    Actually it has happened before. You may have heard of it BBC, it was called the AMERICAN REVOLUTION!!!!

    Many British still just don’t comprehend that the American Revolution happened. The “divine right of kings” still operates there in the minds of the people and even in the laws.

    It’s no wonder that revolution has failed in the emerging nations in Eastern Europe and now the Middle East. Revolution failed in the capitals of Europe and the BBC is broadcasting that fact!

  16. Am I the only liberal (I mean
    Am I the only liberal (I mean proper fiscal and social liberal) in America who loves Ayn Rand? I don’t agree with many (ok, probably all) of the conclusions she arrives at, but she has an uncanny ability of pointing out PROBLEMS in contemporary society.

    After all, can we really argue against the fact that today’s politics is governed by people acting against their rational self-interest?

    Can we argue against the fact that the mainstream critical establishment have their own agendas in promoting certain works of art and literature (this is less true now, of course, given the democratizing effect of the Internet).

    Separately, as a first generation Indian-American, I am confounded by how Rand followers are allied with the “ultra-conservative” movement here, while in India they are definitely part of the progressive left. Perhaps a nation has to come out of a communist foundation to find value in Rand’s writing.

    I’m just thinking aloud!

  17. I am still looking for the
    I am still looking for the exact portion of the program where he starts knocking logic and rational thinking. Wish I had a transcript of this show.

    But I find it hard to believe that the BBC doesn’t back the thrust of this show. It is a propaganda piece for a centrally controlled message emanating from an elite intellectual class and paid for with money confiscated from its subjects.

  18. theoncominghope asks, “can we
    theoncominghope asks, “can we really argue against the fact that today’s politics is governed by people acting against their rational self-interest?

    “Can we argue against the fact that the mainstream critical establishment have their own agendas in promoting certain works of art and literature?”

    No, we can’t: but there’s a long history of Marxists making those arguments as well; indeed, the second one appears in the Communist Manifesto. There’s nothing in them that’s distinctive to Rand.

  19. @Josh
    You have a good point.


    You have a good point. I admit I haven’t read the Communist Manifesto, and probably should!

    However, I am familiar with the Marxist critique of art and academia, which I find one-sided to the point of tedium. At least what Rand proposes is fascinating as a thought experiment, even though practically speaking it’s doomed to complete failure.

    Both her philosophy and Marxism have the same failing: neither accounts for humans behaving like humans, with their petty human human desires.

  20. It makes sense that you as a
    It makes sense that you as a liberal might see value in Rand’s reasoning. Her views reflect a unified view of reality. Most theories only approximate reality, so previous frameworks always overlap with Rand’s foundational work.

    As far as your assessment of politics in the US, I would say that Conservatives have aped Rand, Misses, and von Hayek’s free market capitalism (the only kind), but they never had their heart into it. Even Bill O’Reilly on Fox is a market interventionist and eagerly anticipated TARP spending to “get things going”.

    But the left does this too. Remember that Ross Perot was in the 92 elections which Bill Clinton won and started his first term. In the middle of the campaign Clinton recognized the popularity of Ross Perot and came up with his “It’s the economy stupid” slogan. Before that Perot was the only one talking about the economy.

  21. Without even busting out the
    Without even busting out the classic Lord of the Rings quote that libertarians/objectivists hate so much;

    Didn’t Rand say “when you die the world ends”?

    She’s dead and we’re still writing on the internet…

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