Ayn Rand Didn’t Mean a Technocracy

It is a matter of record that many of the most powerful entrepreneurs and VCs of Silicon Valley espouse a distinctly libertarian point of view tinged with shades of Ayn Rand, or at least a half-assed reading of her works.  And this confluence should not be overlooked, if for no other reason than, at least for the moment, what feels like our inexorable march toward a technocracy is being led by a very small group of very young men.

I have opined to friends and colleagues that the last people who should ever read Ayn Rand’s novels, let alone be required to read them, are teenage boys.  No creature that horny and that neophyte in basic literacy should ever be exposed to her particular brand of social philosophy until it is mature enough to realize that, for instance, her masterwork Atlas Shrugged is essentially an unforgivably verbose, adult comic book.  Like The Justice League meets The Story of O, part of the narrative of this undeservedly influential novel is one in which the heroine lives out her rape fantasies with a series of increasingly powerful wizards.

Each of the wizards — all brilliant and good-looking men — are flattering caricatures of 20th century Robber Barons, as if Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Carnegie were all dashing, philosophical, and scientific rather than cunning, ruthless, and lucky.  The subplot of Dagney Taggart’s sexual metamorphosis portrays her as a figure who must earn the right through her journey toward ideological enlightenment to finally deserve to be ravished by the man with the biggest machine.  In this sense, Taggart’s sexual “awakening” parallels the overarching implication in the novel that society itself must earn the right for John Galt to return messianic with his intrinsic technology.  All of the action is of course interspersed  with endless and repetitive monologues that might be boiled down to three words — communism is bad.

So, no, we should not assign this novel to adolescent boys, most especially if those boys reveal themselves to be prodigies in a technological field and are, therefore, more apt to imagine themselves possessing the power to “turn off the machine of the world.”  Such comparisons to Galt were made after the blackout of certain websites in protest of SOPA/PIPA. And although the world did, and certainly could, carry on without Wikipedia, it is worth noting that its founder Jimmy Wales considers himself an Objectivist, which is the social philosophy of Rand and her inner circle of thinkers and sex partners.  Of course, it’s hard to imagine many enterprises that would inspire one of the author’s smoky sneers more that Wikipedia might.  Free?  For the greater good?  Managed by a collective?  As I say, Rand leaves almost no English word unused in her excoriation of such ideas.  But this is typical of most people who claim to adhere to a particular philosophy; from traditional religion to vegetarianism, they tend to cherry pick the bits they like and leave out the bits they don’t like or don’t understand.

Visualize the present lifestyles many of Silicon Valley’s boy geniuses, and the parallels with Atlas Shrugged require little imagination.  These contemporary wizards have science and technology, they have extraordinary wealth, and they have private planes they land in their very own magic valley where they construct work spaces, social clubs, and even transportation systems that allow them to exist entirely separate from the population around them.  And like John Galt and those chosen to live in his secret valley, the consistently articulated message from these real-life wizards is that society needs them, and we would be self-destructive to restrain their “genius” no matter where it may lead.  Of course, the fictional Galt had invented a machine that would produce an endless supply of energy while many a real-world Internet entrepreneur has invented a means to waste an endless amount of time; but that’s just life’s way of producing an endless amount of irony.

Needless to say, I am no Ayn Rand fan; I think she was mad as a hatter, desperately in need of an editor, and doesn’t really deserve the philosophical pedestal on which she has been placed.  But one value often overlooked by both her fans and her haters, in industry or in politics, and one she often wrote about quite beautifully, was the notion that a person’s work is irrevocably his own. Be it a technological device, an architectural design, a new formulation for steel, a novel, or a symphony, a person’s work was his or her property; and any other person or entity which sought to profit from or restrain the creator’s right to exploit that work was what she called a “looter.”  And nothing was lower in her view.

While many interpreters of Rand associate her with social Darwinism, I think she makes clear that she doesn’t revile the average citizen but rather reviles the theft of human capacity and theft of genius.  Thus, her characters are caricatures of genius breaking restraints on their abilities, but if you pay attention to the passage in Atlas Shrugged once Dagney arrives in the secret valley, you’ll notice that even the ubermensch who have formed their own society still honor the boundaries of one another’s individual sovereignty.  They so utterly reject the idea of the collective, that they will not do even the slightest deed as a favor; all interactions and transactions are a form of trade.  And a less jaded reading of this is that all individuals, not just the John Galts of the world, own the sovereignty and dignity produced by their labor.  And that is not a wholly inhuman idea, which is why I’m not surprised it is so often missed by boys who probably didn’t read very carefully.

© 2014 – 2018, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

Follow IOM on social media:

25 comments

  • I read Vonnegut as a horny teenager, and I contend it warped me in a more interesting (but sadly less lucrative) way.

    • But Vonnegut is a human being with deep feelings of universal love and awareness of human connection between us….not a silly man, nationalist nor industrialist sympathizer. There are no similarities..to Ian Fleming either, for that matter, speaking of adolescent fantasy work.

  • One could make the case that all human interactions ARE some form of a trade. It’s just that most people don’t think in these terms and act consciously for a variety of other reasons…but usually there is some sort of quid-pro-quo going on on some level. This is evidenced by the disappointment we feel when we do a favor for someone and it goes unappreciated…just sayin’….

    • Overviper –

      Except of course that the whole “take first, apologize later” attitude of the SV crowd isn’t trade in any sense.

      • For sure…but this opens another door…that of regulation vs. free markets. At this point in my life, I basically only watch financial news because it’s just a little bit harder to sling bullshit…there are always people watching and fact-checking (or math-checking – kind of the same thing)…I say this in spite of the pundits on CNBC who are, at bottom, salesmen.

        But I find that markets do reflect reality most of the time. The reason that I bring this up is because in terms of Ayn Rand, she had this utopian view of world in just as touchy-feely a way as Thoreau or Barack Obama, for that matter…she believed that by acting out of self interest, we would have the self-correcting influence of the marketplace to keep society running smoothly.

        What we know (and have painfully learned yet again) is that the marketplace does a very bad job of regulating itself, and regulatory oversight is necessary because people just can’t be bothered to pay attention…such that in my opinion, we do not live in the age of technology, but rather in the age of Spin and Marketing…

        Rand was not so much wrong as naive…she believed that people would not act against their own self-interest if they were only made aware that their self-interest was involved. She did not foresee that the 5th estate could become part of the system instead of an honest information stream.

        Cut to the Internet as information stream…One of the wonders of it is that it is now possible for people to connect and share information is ways that were never possible (this blog is a great example)…and the flip side of that is how easy it has become for misinformation to be put out there. Why is this important? Two reasons…the first is that you can’t fight human nature and most people are too lazy to do much fact-checking…and the second reason is scarier…There are too many people using social media not for the information content, but as a way to promote themselves/their products/their agenda – whatever…and again, because people are lazy, they don’t bother looking past a slick commercial to see if what they are buying has deeper ramifications that may, in fact, work against their own ultimate interests.

        For the Silicon Valley “take-first” crowd, the fact that people either don’t see or don’t care is good news…but at the end of the day, I would rather see the marketplace deal with them than yet another layer of government. Government is not very efficient…certainly not as efficient as an informed public who can make decisions that ARE in their own interest…they will quickly desert cigarette smoking when the fact is finally drilled into their brain that it is bad for you.

        Maybe that is the new job of artist…to call attention to the facts of Spotify (like Taylor Swift), or to simply tell all your friends not to sign up with Beats because Jimmy Iovine is a greedy bastard…so don’t help him make more money from a product that is at best marginal.

        Maybe just creating your art is no longer enough…

      • Overviper —

        Of course artists are making those statements, and I’m a believer in markets in the sense that culture has to lead. Legislative action, for instance, should reflect what we want as a society, and it is unfortunate that government is so thoroughly divorced from the electorate. That doesn’t mean regulations imposed on systems cannot be a reflection of our collective will. To the contrary, that’s what government is for.

        I think Rand’s notion that if everyone acts in his own self interest that society will correct itself is precisely the kind of utopianism promoted by the web industry. They’re not only opposed to any form of regulation in order to serve their own interests, but they are opposed to such limitations philosophically with all the hubris of a Hank Reardon.

  • Excellent article. Those Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, feverish little men WISH that they were seen as genius. That’s the adolescent attraction for them.

  • But one value often overlooked by both her fans and her haters, in industry or in politics, and one she often wrote about quite beautifully, was the notion that a person’s work is irrevocably his own.

    I’m not convinced that Rand came up with anything new there. Nor do I think her arguments were anywhere near as convincing as the labour theory of value or Cost the limit of price. At least partly because her support for absolute laissez faire capitalism meant she was contradictory; those particular rights cannot and will not be enforced by the ‘market’

    On her view of property (intellectual and otherwise), I think Robert Anton Wilson pretty much nailed it with this:

    “Property1 is theft” means that property1, created by the artificial laws of feudal, capitalist, and other authoritarian societies, is based on armed robbery. Land titles, for instance, are clear examples of property1; swords and shot were the original coins of transaction.

    “Property2 is liberty” means that property2 that which will be voluntarily honored in a voluntary (anarchist) society, is the foundation of the liberty in that society. The more people’s interests are comingled and confused, as in collectivism, the more they will be stepping on each other’s toes; only when rules of the game declare clearly “This is mine and this is thine,” and the game is voluntarily accepted as worthwhile by all parties to it, can true independence be achieved.

    (…)

    The error of most libertarians – especially the followers (!) of the egregious Ayn Rand – is to assume that all property1 is property2. The distinction can be made by any IQ above 70 and is absurdly simple. The test is to ask, of any title of ownership you are asked to accept or which you ask others to accept, “Would this be honored in a free society of rationalists, or does it require the armed might of a State to force people to honor it?” If it be the former, it is property2 and represents liberty; if it be the latter, it is property1 and represents theft.

    Back of the net.

    As Ayn Rand gets way too much respect as a philosopher, Robert Anton Wilson doesn’t get enough respect. Partly because he uses humour. Far too many people still seem to assume that seriousness is the same thing as authenticity. I blame Radiohead.

  • This is a weird place for me. My personal break with anarcho-capitalistic libertarianism came over IP issues. I was one of the teenage randians the post mentions (although I preferred Heinlein, because he didn’t suffer from literary elephantiasis). It seemed perfectly clear to me that a song is the same as an oil derrick is the same as a novel is the same as Rearden Metal. Although I have gone more left-ish in my personal politics since (although not that far left, if i was European I imagine I’d be reasonably comfortable in one of the center-right parties) I still believe in markets. The current situation has always struck me as completely analogous to a poorly thought out redistribution plan, like you see in communist/hard socialist countries.

  • David says – “Of course, the fictional Galt had invented a machine that would produce and endless supply of energy while many a real-world Internet entrepreneur has invented a means to waste an endless amount of time; but that’s just life’s way of producing an endless amount of irony.”

    🙂
    Nice.

    ..I remember trying to read Rand years ago, but the horrid writing was just to terrible to overlook ; ive seen failing grade school papers written with better grasp on language and prose.
    Needless to say I put the book where it belonged: in the trash. If it were put in the recycle bin, there was a chance it might infect future books with nonsensical folly.

  • I’ve been looking for an excuse to link this excellent cartoon about Ayn Rand for several years- http://angryflower.com/atlass.gif

  • This wound up in one of my own blog posts, and I think it’s pertinent here:
    “Rand also believed that the scientific consensus on the dangers of tobacco was a hoax. By 1974, the two-pack-a-day smoker, then 69, required surgery for lung cancer. And it was at that moment of vulnerability that she succumbed to the lure of collectivism. Evva Joan Pryor, who had been a social worker in New York in the 1970s, was interviewed in 1998 by Scott McConnell, who was then the director of communications for the Ayn Rand Institute. In his book, 100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand, McConnell basically portrays Rand as first standing on principle, but then being mugged by reality. Stephens points to this exchange between McConnell and Pryor.

    “She was coming to a point in her life where she was going to receive the very thing she didn’t like, which was Medicare and Social Security,” Pryor told McConnell. “I remember telling her that this was going to be difficult. For me to do my job she had to recognize that there were exceptions to her theory. So that started our political discussions. From there on – with gusto – we argued all the time.

    “The initial argument was on greed,” Pryor continued. “She had to see that there was such a thing as greed in this world. Doctors could cost an awful lot more money than books earn, and she could be totally wiped out by medical bills if she didn’t watch it. Since she had worked her entire life, and had paid into Social Security, she had a right to it. But she didn’t feel that an individual should take help.”

    I really think she had a fantastical idea about America—she had come from Russia to write for Hollywood and even star in her own screenplays. Unfortunately, she wasn’t a Myrna Loy in either appearance or acting ability. I think that realization hurt her confidence immensely. She was intelligent, that’s for sure. She mastered English which is more than a lot of us have done . . . And when I read “The Fountainhead”, I thought “this is a good story but geez, doesn’t the woman have a heart?” I was 16 or something. I think when Rand wrote it she was a perhaps bit mad herself. Mad in the sense of anger and disillusionment. Compassion is one of humanity’s finer attributes. I found none of that in her work. I feel like she was a pretty unhappy gal.

    • I think she was, too. Thanks for the insight, Jessica.

    • The question is not does Ayn have a heart, but do Sean Parker, Daniel Ek, Tim Westergren and Eric Schmidt have a heart?

      Great article David!

      Atlas Shrugged for Singers and Songwriters.

      100 years of a collectivist music royalty system based on central planning and the progressive economics of price-fixing music rates at 2 cents to now 0 cents vs individual creators and their private property right to exclude and profit.

  • We also have Wesley Mouch in DC setting our music rates at .0012 per play. What the fake libertarians in Silicon Valley “willfully ignore” is integrity, honesty, and theft of other peoples labor and private property.

  • Walk away from technology. I am. just like every other really cool invention. it has been hi-jacked by the masses and turned into complete stupidity. The internet has turned into nothing but TVs Version of Reality TV. Full of stupid people, Stupid Ads and Stupid anti-white, conservative bashing idiots. Nothing good has came out of this experiment lately. We as a species are not ready for this.

    I am in my mid 40s, i was one of those dreamer kids that couldn’t wait to see technology change our lives (yeah i watched Tron, War Games, Star Trek etc.. ) and now. that its here, I want it gone. Especially fkn cell phone cameras.

  • It’s ironic that this commentary begins with a remark about a “half-assed reading” of Rand and then goes on to present a *fully distorted* picture of her philosophy. Assuming the author has even read Rand, it is clear that he did so through the lens of the many misinformed criticisms of her ideas that have appeared over the past 50+ years–or perhaps he simply finds it easier to regurgitate others’ pseudo-criticisms than to think for himself.

    The question the reader of the above must ask himself is whether he is prepared to accept this author’s characterization of Rand’s philosophy, or whether it wouldn’t be more reasonable, more intellectually honest, to discover what Rand actually said and believed before drawing conclusions about her thought or attempting to apply it to some concrete situation.

    As to the often-repeated claim that Rand’s philosophy appeals primarily to teenage boys, this is unsupported by fact (I first encountered Rand at 39). I would, however, agree that teenagers need guidance with respect to *any* philosophy they might encounter (how few parents recognize the danger, for example, in indoctrinating young children in all sorts of religious mumbo-jumbo). Philosophy, as Aristotle pointed out, should not be attempted until the individual has gained a certain amount of practical experience of the world. I will say, however, that encountering Rand’s adamant defense of reason and individual rights at *any* age cannot possibly be a bad thing.

  • “They so utterly reject the idea of the collective, that they will not do even the slightest deed as a favor; all interactions and transactions are a form of trade.”

    I’m not really clear why you’d think all Randians somehow missed this part of the book, but I do know that critics of the book never fail to make a big stink about it.

    To recap: In the book Galt asks a friend for use of his car, and it’s made clear (to Dagney’s surprise) that he’s not asking to *borrow* the car; he’s asking to rent it. This of course is where critics will scream: “So in Rand’s ideal world you never, EVER give anything for free? Even lend your car to a friend for the afternoon? That’s disgusting and horrible!”

    But I ask: is it really? One fact constantly left out is that the price charged for the car was a QUARTER. Now sure, the book was published in the early 50s, but even with inflation 25¢ in today’s money is just over 2 dollars. That’s barely enough for a drink at Starbucks. So what Galt paid to his friend was a nominal fee in return for use of this car. What exactly is wrong with that? What exactly would be so terrible about a world where the norm was that any time someone asked to use something of yours, or they asked for you to expend your effort or your time; they automatically offered you something of value in return?

    Personally I’d think that would be a better world, not worse. Any time you ask someone for something and offer nothing back, you’re putting that person out. Offering something back, even if nominal means you acknowledge this. Offering value for value makes one a GOOD person, not BAD. Why would you not do this, “even with friends”? You should do it ESPECIALLY with friends!

    So in “Galt’s Gulch”, it’s considered wrong to put someone out for your own benefit. If you think that’s bad, I say that’s because you’re a bad person.

    • kingadrock —

      I’m not sure why you miss the part of my essay that agrees to an extent with your perspective. First of all, I don’t say anything about all Randians in this piece, though I generally criticize her work. I refer rather to the self-styled Randian/libertarian of Silicon Valley who either profits from, at least condones, and often champions the act of looting in the name of social benefit. This most constantly manifests in the form of major Internet company owners and their pundits rejecting the value of intellectual property. As I indicate in the essay, Rand absolutely preached the idea that a man’s expression of his genius was his property to exploit as he saw fit and ONLY as he saw fit. I even go so far as to give Rand credit that she metaphorically means all labor (not just the great works), which I think is more relevant to the moral point you want to make. Whether or not one does favors for friends isn’t the point. The point is whether individuals are sovereign in their property and in the dignity earned by their own work.

      The problem with many a Randian (because it is a flaw in Rand’s work itself) is that they like the part that seems to justify unfettered capitalism when they are at the top of the pile, but they skip over the reality that no man is an island. Thus capitalism, absent certain collectivist ideas like labor unions, leads to the very same inhuman conditions we fear from communism. Read descriptions of an Amazon fulfillment center, and it’s hard to tell whether they more resemble early 20th century America or contemporary China. In either case, it’s grinding human labor into the machine.

Join the discussion.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.