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Time to Burn Straw Men: Addressing the Clichéd Arguments Against Ayn Rand

Time to Burn Straw Men: Addressing the Clichéd Arguments Against Ayn Rand

5 Mins
February 21, 2019

In his recent book, The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties, Paul Collier mentions Ayn Rand. The comment is a one-off, so I’ll be generous and say that it neatly encapsulates a straw man argument critics of Ayn Rand have bandied about for decades:

The atoms of humanity are not reasoning individuals, but the relationships into which we are born. We can learn from the freakishly rare anomalies of ‘babes in the wood’--children reared by wolves. Do they, as in the Romulus and Remus mythology, grow up to found Rome? Updated from Rome to the present, we might think of it as the logical endpoint of the Ayn Rand hypothesis: if only people could grow up freed from the shackles of society, they would become Atlas-like independent-minded innovators. In fact, they become tragic creatures, unrecognizable as human beings.

I’ll start with the “babes in the wood.” Nothing in Ayn Rand’s writings indicates an indifference to human parenting or a belief that children would be better off raised in the woods by wolves. Rand thought children should be raised by their parents.

She considered child-rearing important work. She told Playboy in 1964 that women who are mothers ought to take the job seriously. A mother needs to think through and apply “the rules and principles by which she wants to bring up her children.” She needs to approach motherhood “as a career,” reading about and studying for the job “in an intellectual manner.” She should understand child development--cognitive, psychological, physical, and emotional--and raise her children not to satisfy her emotional needs but to prepare them for adulthood.

Rand called parenting “a very responsible task and a very important one, but only when treated as a science, not as a mere emotional indulgence.”

Not only did Rand criticize parents who treated child-rearing cavalierly, she singled out, as particularly contemptible, anyone who worried more about trees and animals than they did about their own offspring. In 1969, in The Objectivist article “The ‘Inexplicable Personal Alchemy’” she noted that “elders [who] putter about, conserving redwood forests and building sanctuaries for mallard ducks” do so while their children languish: “Nobody notices those youths as they drop out of sight one by one, like sparks vanishing in limitless black space; nobody builds sanctuaries for the best of the human species.”

The children of such parents, Rand observed, do not grow up to be Atlases. Those young men and women, instead, “go from confident eagerness to bewilderment to indignation to resignation--to obscurity.”

It is not true, either, that Ayn Rand said that all children could grow up to be Atlases, under special conditions, or that such a prospect would even yield a good result. That is not how capitalism works. What she said--AND THIS IS IMPORTANT--is that the wellbeing and prosperity of everyone under capitalism depends upon some children growing up to be Atlases.

Anyone who actually reads Atlas Shrugged will find that Ayn Rand recognized that under capitalism, reasoning individuals, rather than being atomistic, cooperate with each other. While their work is done individually, all levels of ability are necessary for human flourishing, with each level cooperating with every other to be able to do their jobs. And while individuals work for their own personal profit, everyone benefits from the contributions of everyone else, and the benefits accrue downwards from the most skilled workers to the least.

Ayn Rand firmly believed that it is up to the able, the highly qualified, to lead. She was not, however, an elitist. An organization that only hires geniuses will be as badly run as one that only hires clerical workers or sales people. Geniuses will only want to do what they are good at. You can’t necessarily ask them to make photocopies, draw up an invoice, check for bottlenecks in production, or cold call a prospective client. On the other hand, if there isn’t anything of genius to sell, sales people, managers, and clerical workers will have nothing to do.

As Rand knew, allowing the most qualified to lead is the best way to ensure that individuals of diverse qualifications have the most opportunities. Allowing the most qualified to lead is also the best way to ensure a cooperative, mutually beneficial division of labor.

Before she began writing Atlas Shrugged, Rand thought through and wrote down in her Journals the logical conclusions of each of the ideas she wished to illustrate in the novel. This is how she explained the necessity of diverse levels of ability:

[I]t is precisely the differences of intelligence that make cooperation among men possible, fair to all and beneficial to all. For example, a genius who makes an abstract scientific discovery turns it over to the lesser, but still brilliant man—the practical inventor—who discovers a way to make a machine based on it; [the inventor] turns it over to the lesser, but still talented man—the businessman—who starts an industry based on the machine; and so on—down to the man of least ability, the unskilled laborer who only turns a crank, or digs a ditch for the factory, or sweeps the factory floors. The least of these men receives more material benefits through this cooperation than he could get if left on his own (or, in corresponding degree, if any of the better abilities above him had been eliminated.)

In other words, everyone should work at a high level with an understanding that some people will inevitably have more talent, more genius, and others less, but that all levels of ability are needed. Moreover, those with lower ability will achieve more and be compensated better when those with higher ability are allowed to reach their potential.

One example from Atlas Shrugged is Eddie Willers, who serves as assistant to Dagny Taggart in her role as Vice President in Charge of Operations at Taggart Transcontinental. Willers understands that he does not have the ability to do what Dagny does. But because of her, Willers has the opportunity to be part of an extraordinary enterprise, to live a life far more interesting than he could have on his own.

Another example is Gwen Ives, Hank Rearden’s secretary. Ives is an exceptionally capable secretary. She is accurate, organized, disciplined, efficient, and tireless. She is as good at her work as Rearden is at his. She knows that working for Rearden puts her administrative skills to the best possible use, and she is devoted to her job.

Rand’s view of ability has nothing to do with the Marxist claim, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” however. It has to do with being useful, with learning a set of skills that can create value so that you can trade value for value. Capitalism is about mobility, ideally the upward kind.

Throughout Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand illustrated the problems caused by hiring people for any other reason than trading value for value. Putting people into positions that they are unqualified for has serious consequences.

In her Journals she explained,

The lesser man thinks he would be president of the company but for the better man. He’s wrong. There wouldn’t be any company. He thinks better men crowd him out of the better jobs--and all he has to do is destroy the better men, then the jobs will be his. But he destroys the jobs when he destroys the better men. They were not made by these jobs--these jobs were made by them. The lesser man can neither create the jobs of the genius nor keep them.

Nowhere does she write that the logical conclusion for the exceptional few individuals who rise to the top of their professions is to become “tragic creatures, unrecognizable as human beings.” What she does say is that for everyone else to thrive, the Atlases must be left alone to achieve at their highest level. But again, there is nothing isolated or atomistic about their achievement. Cooperation is human nature. No one achieves without it. Again, from Rand’s Journals:

The relationship works like this: a great, cooperative enterprise of many men is like a pyramid, with the single best brain on top, and then [at lower levels] the ability required is less and the number of men in that category is greater. Even though each man (assuming all work to the best of their ability) earns his living by his own effort and his wages represent his own, legitimate contribution--each has the advantage of all the strata above him, which contribute to the productive capacity of his own energy and raise that capacity (without diminishing their own); each man of lesser ability receives something extra from the men of greater ability above him; while the man at the top (the genius, the originator, the creator) receives nothing extra from all those under him, yet contributes to the whole pyramid (by nature of his [work]). Now this is the creative over-abundance of the genius, this is the pattern of how he carries mankind, properly and without self-sacrifice, when left free to assume his natural course and function.

Understood Rand’s way, the Atlases are recognizably human. They are not left alone in the woods. Rather, they are left alone to achieve, and they produce enormous benefits under capitalism.

But Collier’s The Future of Capitalism isn’t really defending capitalism. It is statism he’s promoting, and statists have good reason to bemoan Rand’s ideas. If the future of capitalism is at risk, it is not because of any hypotheses of Ayn Rand’s. On the contrary, the future of capitalism depends upon them.

Further reading

"Myth: Ayn Rand was an Elitist” https://atlassociety.org/commentary/commentary-blog/3453-myth-ayn-rand-was-an-elitis


Marilyn Moore

Marilyn Moore
About the author:
Marilyn Moore

Senior Editor Marilyn Moore thinks that Ayn Rand is a great American writer, and with a Ph.D in literature, she writes literary analysis that proves it. As Director of Student Programs, Moore trains Atlas Advocates to share Ayn Rand’s ideas on college campuses and leads discussions with Atlas Intellectuals seeking an Objectivist perspective on timely topics. Moore travels nationwide speaking and networking on college campuses and at liberty conferences.

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