Monday, December 6, 2010

Libertarians VI The Fatal Errors of Atlas Shrugged (Part C) 95

Reductionism claims that everything can be reduced to a written description. This is obviously not true. Kekule discovered the rotating double bonds of benzene without saying a word; instead, an image was given to him. Music composition normally takes place without words, although some composers can take lyrics and add music to the words.

A common error of reductionism is taking something complex and offering a supposedly complete explanation that is too simple. As Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” My opinion is that Gale's speech is full of complex things that are only partially discussed.

Propaganda Is Never Art
The Greeks were right. An artist has the ability to conjure the Muses and transcribe, from them to us, a story. This is “techne,” which in modern language has been dumbed-down to mean only technique. A propagandist does none of this process of accepting inspiration and transmitting it; instead the propagandist spreads forth an ideal from something that superficially resembles art.

Let's go back briefly and meditate on the cardboard villains with the ugly and laughable names in Atlas Shrugged. Who the hell are these people and why are they necessary? Rand has done better with Jim Taggart as a villain. She did better in The Fountainhead with Ellsworth Toohey as a villain. Shrugged gives us this mob of two dimensional characters we are supposed to hate because of their triteness and laughable names. Again, why?

The answer comes from Rand's first novel, Anthem. She promised herself that she would get out of Soviet Russia and she promised to fight the system and its propaganda. So, with Anthem and again with Shrugged, she involuntarily employed anti-Soviet propaganda of a caliber designed to win a dogfight in a Soviet university in the 1920s. And she succeeds. Shrugged is excellent as an anti-Leninist tract. But it's not art, so it's certainly not a great novel.


No, I'm not taking about the hatred the left feels for Ayn Rand and the continuous flow of material against her that has been flowing for a half-century. That stuff is fodder for healthy debate. Rand has a long history of being hated well after her own death (although people continue to read her). But she doesn't have the crown here. The most-hated writer that people continue to read is Rudyard Kipling.

Yes, I am talking about the viscous sectarian spats that her followers are always getting into with each other. This clearly proves, at the very least, that Rand has been vague or incomplete about her philosophy, or that she reduced the irreducible and over-simplified a complex problem. Even followers who fully agree with Rand are stunned by the incessant bickering:

The above link provides an alarming, cogent and dire warning about Objectivism

The Human Mind Isn't Wired the Way John Galt Says It Is

“Volitional consciousness”? Dogs have that quality – they hunt in packs by setting up ambushes; the offspring are never orphaned because of “puppy immunity”; the leaders are chosen by meritocratic aggressiveness (just as Galt's motor trumped d'Anconia's copper mines in the book).

What in hell is a viscous rant against Jesus Christ doing in Galt's speech? If atheism is the only respectable view, then Christ was a mortal who was a master at rhetoric. But Galt doesn't touch what Christ stood for or said, he goes after Christ personally, the church rabidly, and the followers for stupidity. Where are all the crooked churches in Atlas Shrugged that the reader can relate to when reading this kind of smear?

The human brain is a marvel, the most advanced known example of enthalpy in the universe. It's also the thirstiest and most gluttonous living tissue known, sucking in energy and creating its own strong electromagnetic field. It remembers by setting up nerve circuits. It thinks, marvelously, by comparing the existing circuit and looking for analogs or exact identity in chemo-electric structure.

It's a marvelous organ that isn't fully understood. Using scans and specific stimulus, scientists are getting closer and closer to understanding the brain. And those gains are actually starting to make Galt's speech sound quaint. Galt's model is wrong, the epistemology is and unworkable an out-of-date one, and the rants Galt luxuriates in are irrelevant to the central point of his speech.

For those of you who hate Ayn Rand and Objectivism, verily, I say unto you, “Don't sweat it. Don't worry. Further research into the operation of the brain will prove absolutely fatal to Rand's approach.”

Corporations Have Different Standards than those Rand Imagines

Ayn Rand had a degree from St. Petersburg State University in history, studying under Leninists in Soviet Russia. She was the center of an intellectual group in New York City in the 1950s she nicknamed “the collective.” This included economist Alan Greenspan, M.D. and psychiatrist Leonard Peikoff, psychologist Nathaniel Branden and his wife Barbara (herself a cousin of Peikoff), and other professionals. These became the reviewers of Atlas Shrugged.

Atlas Shrugged was reviewed by professionally trained people that Rand trusted – and not by businessmen at all. This is important because in 1956, a year before Shrugged hit the presses, a famous book about life in modern American corporations was published, The Organization Man, by William H. Whyte. It has also been in print for over fifty years [and is used by the blog author in his urban coyote mentoring course]. Timely, invaluable insights into the modern corporation were right there in print at the time Shrugged was being finalized. Failure to pick up on those insights seriously wounded the potential of Rand's massive novel.

America and Capitalism Are Not Utopian

The United States, the world's oldest revolutionary republic, was not set up to be heaven on earth. Regardless of the lies of the Christian right, it was not designed as a Christian paradise, either. It was established by English colonists who were enraged that they weren't being properly treated as Englishmen.

It was a group of angry people who correctly saw that they weren't being treated right. When they won their freedom, they tried to establish a minimalist central government under the Articles of Confederation. This approach wasn't working. So they got together for drafting a replacement document, an effort which melted down into gridlock and irresolution. So they locked the doors, stopped transcribing the discussions, and, in secret, drafted the Constitution. That document also got into gridlock, not obtaining enough states for ratification. So as the ratification clock continued ticking, ten amendments were added (the “Bill of Rights”) and, as a package, this became the law of the land that has remained in place since.

Remember those secret closed sessions. There aren't any notes. The outside and previous publications and writings are not appropriate to intuit what happened to get the Constitution drafted. It's a mystery.

The Constitution represents a repudiation of the Articles of Confederation and the perfection of a legal trend from Magna Carta to the religious conflicts of the 1550s to the English Civil War to the restoration of William and Mary to the political writings of John Locke.

To Rand, the Constitution and founding of American government are a magical thing that happened because the founders were a generation of philosophers. That's not quite true. Many were philosophers or at least philosophically literate, but they did not agree and could not agree at several points. They got together and produced a masterful and workable document, but that was done in secret, because they knew that open notes would affect the agreement later as it was argued in court.

I cannot find that Rand, herself an historian, truly understood or fully respected what actually happened in the founding of America. It was a masterstroke of realism instead of idealism. These were people who, in the end, wanted to strengthen English Common Law and case law (another reason to keep their deliberations over the Constitution secret). Had Rand fully understood all this, she would have objected to the end of common law at the federal level in 1938 as a result of a Supreme Court case. But she never wrote about that.

I don't doubt that Rand loved America and appreciated its freedom and strength. But I doubt that she understood it as well as she thought she did.

Objectivism Is A Wretched Mess As a Formal Philosophy

This is essentially a story told by links, so here they are!

[Copyright 2005 by Mike Huben ( ).
This document may be freely distributed for non-commercial purposes if it is reproduced in its textual entirety, with this notice intact.]

Chris Wolf's article, above, with a new and “live” link, has not been repeated below.

Scott McLemee provides a charitable overview of the history, major factions, and controversies of Objectivism. Useful background for understanding criticisms, without fawning.
Kelley L. Ross' Friesian School biography of Rand, which is strongly critical of some of Rand's philosophical errors.
Nicholas Dykes' anarcho-libertarian criticism of Rand's denunciation of anarchy.
A John Bergstrom's Attack Cartoons feature that skewers some common libertarian/objectivist foibles.
Robert Bass concludes that Rand's ambition exceeded her achievement. He effectively shows how all her most important arguments fail. Part of his Objectivism: Assorted Commentary page.
Roy Childs presents an anarcho-libertarian refutation of Rand's minarchist position.
by David Friedman. Illuminates a few of the gaping holes in Rand's "logic".
by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr. Objectivists are taken to task for selective quoting from Jefferson, whose writings give many sound reasons to reject Objectivism.
by Scott Ryan. A technical philosophical criticism of Rand, now a book, based largely on the ideas of Brand Blanshard.
by Michael Huemer. A philosophical examination of some Objectivist claims by a skeptic coming from a very similar position and using similar methodology.
Michael Huemer finds eight fatal flaws in Rand's derivation of objectivist ethics. (That's all?)
by Chris Wolf. An explanation of why there is so much cult-like hostility and schism in a philosophy that claims perception of objective truth.
Nathaniel Branden details some errors Ayn Rand was prone to. One of several self-aggrandizing discussions of her feet of clay, written conveniently after her death.
Michael Shermer's history and critique of some basic flaws of Objectivism.
Mark Twain's cynical rebuttal of egoism. Predating Objectivism, it none the less stands Objectivism on its head.
by Peter F. Erickson. This advertisement for his book claims to patch Objectivism's failings, but his blurb sounds even crankier.
by Gary Merrill. Why academics disdain the slipshod work of Rand and her major followers.
by Ken Fox. A dead-accurate and scathing review both of the movie and Rand's "importance". A lot said in few words.
by R. W. Bradford. A libertarian critic of Rand decries its propagandistic nature, its lies of omission and commission.
The Neo-Tech Skeptic FAQ and a collection of Mike Doughney's posts describing how Neo-Tech is a cult. Part of the .ex-cult archive page, which is well worth a visit.
Some of the more obvious dirt on Neo-Tech, which is like a Scientologist's interpretation of Objectivism.
by Whittaker Chambers. The 1957 National Review book review of Atlas Shrugged. Wants to be sympathetic, but just can't: the book was just too awful.
Rob Slade's Internet Review Project review casts a quizzical eye on the absurdities of Atlas Shrugged. Many amusing comments on this bizarre ideological heroic fantasy.
The chapter "Against Objectivism" details several reasons for considering Objectivism a pseudophilosophy. It points out at length how foolishly naive "existence exists" is. An e-book in PDF by M.R.M. Parrott.
by Scott Ryan. Some good parodies of Objectivist language, behavior, and rationalization.
Part of the article on ethics, which points out that Rand was hardly original in ethical egoism, that it must be defended in utilitarian terms, and that the claims of ethical egoism fail for very common prisoner's dilemmas.
John Hospers points out the errors in axioms such as "non-initiation of force", such as intermediates between consent and force.
Amitai Etzioni makes a communitarian critique of Tibor Machan and the failings of economic models of human behavior.
Murray Rothbard's thinly veiled satirical play about Ayn Rand and her Objectivist merrymakers. It takes one to know one.
Barry Stoller presents a plain-speaking analysis of Objectivism as a supremacy doctrine for people too busy, lazy, or stupid to actually be intellectuals.
This one is relatively subtle.
The DMOZ Open Directory catalog. A fairly good list of criticisms.
How can I top that self-description? Links to 20 or so mockeries.
John Ku's excellent critique of Rand's theory of ethics.
Starts off with a very clever "Rape: The Unknown Ideal" example to demonstrate the "logic" in Ayn Rand's work.
Perhaps this is why there are so few children of Objectivists. From Save The Humans.
A Bob the Angry Flower Classic Literature sequel.
Many Objectivists (libertarians too) think that their ideas are more "rational" than those of other people. Let's look at the term.
Jessica Amanda Salmonson presents the facts about this "objective" urban myth. It takes a fantasy novelist to know one....
Tom Devine emphasizes that "we should never trust a person whose system of thought has a name." A very good rule of thumb.
A harsh review of "Atlas Shrugged" that points out the "weird, pathological agendas and bad writing."

Print References

Albert Ellis "Is Objectivism A Religion?"
L. Stuart, 1968.
Herakles Pub. 1997. Shows some fundamental errors in Rand's philosophy, and identifies some earlier alternatives that are supposedly correct., 2001. Perhaps the most extensive criticism of Rand. Finds that her assumptions about human nature do not match scientific knowledge of human nature.
William F. O'Neill "With Charity Toward None: An Analysis Of Ayn Rand's Philosophy"
Littlefield, Adams, 1972.
John W. Robbins "Answer to Ayn Rand : [a critique of the philosophy of objectivism]"
Apparently a rebuttal from a religious point of view.
A technical analysis that finds Objectivism to be both incoherent and unoriginal.
(Open Court 1998). Questions the originality of Rand's ideas, and presents the cult-like organization of Objectivism.


  1. a lot of those links are broken....

  2. Ad Hominem attacks don't accomplish anything, retard.