The simplistic flaw in Ayn Rand’s philosophy

Ayn Rand looms large in American "philosophy." Credit:

As a professional philosopher, I should be grateful to Ayn Rand.  As Leonard Peikoff put it, she was “the greatest salesman that philosophy ever had.”  Indeed, it seems as if it is only when Rand’s name crashes in again on the political scene, as it did with candidacy of Ron Paul, or now Paul Ryan, that philosophy is given an opportunity to shine, as a discipline, in the media.

Rand’s 1974 speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point was entitled, “Philosophy — Who Needs It.”  Notice that this title is not posing a question.  Rand is telling you who needs philosophy: you do, and the students at West Point need it — in a pitched battle against ignorance, relativism, ideology, and absurdity that is every bit as vital as the one that these soldiers may one day wage with arms.

Everyone needs philosophy, Rand argues, and what she means by philosophy is not just some set of commonsense maxims.  Everyone needs to wrestle with the great questions of knowledge, truth, and reality that have occupied the greatest minds for centuries.  As a teacher who is daily in the classroom making the same case, I should appreciate Rand’s gallant provocation to a culture that habitually cares little for the concerns of philosophers.

But I must confess that I am somewhat sheepishly ungrateful for what Rand hath wrought.  Her watchwords are “reason,” “logic,” and “objectivity,” but when I scrutinize the ideas for which she has been most influential — her ideas on political economy — I find that they are logically fallacious to the point of unreason.

I see that Rand does not tolerate the philosopher’s patient tarrying with differing points of view but moves in quickly for the rhetorical kill.  She seems to be moved by a passion — the libido dominandi, the desire for control — far more than by the gentle art of thinking.  It is always astounding to me that some of the most educated members of our intellectual elites should swallow her arguments so gleefully, and I have to believe that it is more a function of their elitism than their intellectual capacities.

We need to focus our attention on the central flaw in Rand’s reasoning because it parallels, and partially encourages, the confused thinking that is generating some of the impasses in our current governmental debates.

The fallacy that is at the heart of Rand’s political-economic philosophy is the fallacy of mistaking a necessary condition for a sufficient condition.  This is elementary logic.  A necessary condition is something that is needed in order to make something else happen.  A plant must have water, for example, in order to thrive.  But a necessary condition is not the same as a sufficient condition — that is, something that provides everything needed for something else to happen.  Water is not sufficient to make a plant thrive. Other ingredients are needed, like soil and sunlight. 

Ayn Rand’s philosophy is above all a defense of the entrepreneur.  The economic value of goods and services that we find on the market is created by entrepreneurs — people who had the idea, pursued the vision, marshaled the resources, managed production, and shepherded products to market.

One can agree with this point by saying that the entrepreneur is a necessary condition for the creation of economic value. But Rand treats the entrepreneur as a sufficient condition.  The entrepreneur creates the value of goods and everyone else gets in his way (in Rand the pronoun is always “he,” even when he is a woman).  Governments are leeches on the value he creates; organized labor siphons off more of it.  Who could blame the hero of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, and his like if they should take their marbles and head off to form their own society, leaving the parasites behind?

But in truth the entrepreneur, though very much a necessary condition for the production of economic value, is not a sufficient condition.  An entrepreneur will get nowhere without a capitalist or a government agency in charge of a budget to finance his or her ideas; the production will require a labor force; it will need to make use of public infrastructure and a framework of the rule of law; and the fruits of the production will be of no value if no one wants them.  Thus the creators, entrepreneurs, investors, taxpayers, legislators, jurists, workers, and consumers are all necessary conditions for the production of the value that we find in the marketplace; but none of them, including the entrepreneur, is a sufficient condition: none can make it happen alone.

It is this very fundamental and seemingly obvious fact that Rand’s thinking seeks to distort.  So determined is she, from the outset, to raise the entrepreneur above all the others that she will not even consider the arguments supporting those others’ necessary role.  So fantastic is her speculation as to how the world could work with the entrepreneur as the sufficient condition that she must create a fictional world that produces the consequences she wants and proves her point exactly.

Some of our most prominent leaders of both the private and public sectors take Rand’s fallacies as the very ideal of reason and her fictional world as the world that they most earnestly wish to create for the rest of us to live in.  In their belief that the entrepreneur is the sole engine of worth they would slash governments and undo the political power of labor.  The “job creators” become the heroes that must be appeased at any cost.  Small business owners come to believe that they, and they alone, have created the worth of their business.

But if we were to believe, with a fervency equal to that of the Randians, that the value of goods and services has multiple origins, then we would be far more inclined to seek a balance of the interests represented by different economic constituencies. We would be motivated to negotiate among the whole gamut of players in our economy, and even, perhaps, to engage in a philosophical consideration of the relative importance of each. We might rediscover the virtue of seeking a balance among economic interests.

But the Rand approach, having already settled the core question as to who generates value in the economy, has no need for such discussions.  It is for this reason that Rand, for all of her praise of philosophy, puts up strong barriers to the powers of philosophical self-reflection and reasoning.           

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