Rand’s Fountainhead

Ayn Rand The Fountainhead Penguin 2007 (Original 1943, Introduction by Rand 1968.)

According to Wikipedia (above), this is popular with American adolescents and helped promote libertarian ideals, with Alan Greenspan being an influential disciple – perhaps not in a good way.

Without Wikipedia, the introduction, or an understanding of US politics, the book would be difficult to interpret. The heroes advocate a life guided by two things: reason and an independence from the beliefs, wants and needs of others. It seems to me that the first needs no justification and the second is supported by some good arguments. One of these is a variant of Keynes’ ‘beauty contest’ observation about stock markets. If almost everyone based their actions on what they thought were the wishes of the majority then the whole system would be arbitrary, unstable, and vulnerable to capture by people less altruistic (as the villain intends to do). But both the main hero and the villain point out a basic flaw in each other’s arguments. The Socratic method is to identify a thesis and anti-thesis, to identify flaws in both, and then to develop a synthesis as a new thesis that avoids the flaws identified so far. In the book, both sides use a variant in which they:

  1. Propose a thesis
  2. Put forward an ‘Aunt-Sally’ anti-thesis (e.g., one which an opponent has proposed)
  3. Demonstrate some flaws in the anti-thesis.
  4. Claim that the thesis has been established.

This might be valid if one could show that the thesis and anti-thesis exhausted the possibilities, but for the types of issue at hand this is rarely (never?) the case.

In Keynes’ example, the thesis might be no ‘technical trading’, the anti-thesis only technical trading, the synthesis mixed trading, with some means of limiting technical trades. I may have missed something (the book is rather turgid to modern tastes) , but the heroes seem to ignore this aspect of rationality, to their detriment.

The heroes are against altruists, this being illustrated in the case of a social housing project. There are two claims: firstly, that bureaucracies are liable to various forms of corruption. Secondly, that such projects tend to be uniform and mundane, and hence oppressive to the human spirit and its creativity. Both claim seems true, but manageable. Indeed, the book offers something of a vision as to how the situation could be remedied.

In the 1968 introduction, Rand makes two additional claims: that laissez faire capitalism is necessary to support her ‘ideal man’, and that it ‘demands and rewards’ such men. The novel can be read as contrasting the kinds of society that ‘collectivism’ and laissez faire capitalism would produce. Neither seems very appealing.

Thus, for me, the book gives some ‘food for thought’ but has not fully digested it. I would, though, agree with the comment on the back cover, that Rand gives ‘an uncompromising defence of self-interest as the engine of progress’. We do need people who are somewhat like her heroes, and in the UK, at least, I think that we should strive to remove obstacles to their progress. But it seems to me that some interventions in the name of conservatism have actually run counter to such goals. The details matter.

See Also

Alan Greenspan The Age of Turbulence Penguin 2008. He notes that markets tend to mis-price long-run uncertainty, and that this contributed to the crash of 2007/8.

Dave Marsay

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