Objectivist seance: Interviewing Ayn Rand

In 1998, freelance writer Paul Spinrad pitched a story to Wired magazine. He wanted to write about Ayn Rand, who I guess has written a couple of books about stuff, but that wasn’t good enough for Wired.

So at the editor’s request, he set out to interview Rand. That Rand died 16 years earlier was of little consequence.

After what must have been a mind-bending amount of research, Spinrad churned out an impressive, coherent “interview” with Rand, clocking in at more than 4,000 words (written, admittedly, “for an editor to cut down”). He pieced together quotes from Rand’s written and spoken work, dutifully citing each comment.

The piece was never published — until this month. Boing Boing, one of the world’s most popular blogs, published Spinrad’s piece.

Through Spinrad’s hard work and dedication, we now are treated to the great libertarian’s thoughts on everything from Microsoft’s monopoly to Monica Lewinsky’s psychology, from the development of the Internet to the argument for school vouchers. I’m glad this piece finally saw the light of day; it’s a fun read. An excerpt:

WIRED: Last March, when Bill Gates testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of the Justice Department’s antitrust investigation, I thought of you.

RAND: [Margin 195] This is as crude a case of penalizing ability for being ability, and of national suicide via anti-capitalism as one could invent in any fiction. Straight out of Atlas Shrugged – [Obj News v1 5] the sacrifice of productive genius to the demands of envious mediocrity. [Margin 195] This is horror and vicious insanity.

But isn’t there a point at which monopolies can injure competition?

[Letters 61] Boy, oh boy! If this isn’t collectivist Party Line, I’ll eat Das Kapital unabridged. [Margin 210] Just how are you going to compete if you cannot “injure” competition?

Read the full piece here. And feel free to argue the strengths and weaknesses of Rand’s philosophy below.

21 thoughts on “Objectivist seance: Interviewing Ayn Rand

  1. Dennis Lang says:

    Great! Looking forward to reading the article and hoping it stimulates all the anonymous ones out here to some spirited conversation. As I recall from my youth there is little in the grey area when it comes to Ayn Rand.

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      Thanks for the reference to Howard Zinn. As a philosopher I’m thinking Ayn Rand is probably quite debunkable. Her history of philosophy in “For the New Intellectual” is superficial to the point of embarassment–a source of amusement to a freshman Philosophy major. Looking forward to Spinrad’s piece, the interview with a dead person. Cool idea.

  2. Joe Loveland says:

    This reminds me of a funny nomination for Worst Christmas Specials ever from author John Scalzi:

    Ayn Rand’s A Selfish Christmas. In this hour-long radio drama, Santa struggles with the increasing demands of providing gifts for millions of spoiled, ungrateful brats across the world, until a single elf, in the engineering department of his workshop, convinces Santa to go on strike. The special ends with the entropic collapse of the civilization of takers and the spectacle of children trudging across the bitterly cold, dark tundra to offer Santa cash for his services, acknowledging at last that his genius makes the gifts — and therefore Christmas — possible. Prior to broadcast, Mutual Broadcast System executives raised objections to the radio play, noting that 56 minutes of the hour-long broadcast went to a philosophical manifesto by the elf and of the four remaining minutes, three went to a love scene between Santa and the cold, practical Mrs. Claus that was rendered into radio through the use of grunts and the shattering of several dozen whiskey tumblers. In later letters, Rand sneeringly described these executives as “anti-life.”

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      Brilliant! It’s exactly the spirit of “Atlas Shrugged”. In one of the greatest lines ever termed a “masochist’s lollipop” in the “NY Times” review.

  3. Mike Kennedy says:

    The Economist had a piece earlier this year that sales of Rand’s book, Atlas Shrugged, jump every time government intervenes in the markets — maybe that’s why it has sold so well over the past 40 years. I firmly believe that the profit motive and desire to be productive can be the best expressions of altruism.

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      I’m going on recollection here but for Ayn Rand empathy was one of the least noble emotions, and pity the equivalent of what one felt over a squashed caterpilllar. I wonder, especially since the industrial revolution, if the pursuit of self-interest is too often only to the benefit of the self, regardless of the cost to others.

  4. Mike Kennedy says:

    I think Rand was from the Linus of Charlie Brown school of philosophy “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.”

    Rand was an unapologetic fan of being left alone. I don’t think she was a particularly warm person, but people commonly think she had no feeling for her fellow man because she promoted selfishness. However, it meant not taking advantage of other people but taking care of yourself and what you value first.

    I once read someone define her view on this by writing “The truly selfish person is a self-respecting, self supporting human being who neither sacrifices others to himself nor sacrifices himself to others.”

    She and others have argued that more harm has been done to mankind by in the name of collectivism and altruism than individualism. They make a good case.

  5. What people so frequently miss is that she didn’t just stop at “Take care of yourself.” Rand’s philosophy, if I may generalize, is that “Taking care of yourself is the best way to take care of everyone else” — not the other way around.

    It’s not all that different from the whole “give a man a fish…” thing. Help ’em now or help ’em now and later.

  6. Jon Austin says:

    I came to Ayn Rand’s two big books – Atlas Shrugged and the Fountainhead – in my 40s and was underwhelmed with them as both fiction and works of political philosophy. As fiction, I found her plotting predictable and her characterizations wholly lacking in nuance. As political philosophy, they struck me as Utopian extremism written by a person who wants the world to conform to her rigid views of right and wrong but who lacks the nuance to deal with the world as it really is. As a result, in both cases, when finishing the books, I turned to my wife and said something to the effect of, “I don’t get why this was ever such a big deal.” Still don’t

    – Austin

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      Right Professor, you were way too mature to appreciate those novels by discovering them in your forties. The best time, about age sixteen. These are not probing examinations of human psychology by a long shot, but discovering her character Howard Roark in “The Fountainhead” as a teenager was then an inspiration. The triumph of an individual spirit, choosing his own values, inner-directed in a cuture driven by the prevailing trends and the suppression of individualism stimulated a sense of unlimited possibilty and self-efficacy.

  7. Mike Kennedy says:

    Mike:

    You’re right. She advocates that taking care of yourself first is the best way to look after everyone else. Kind of like the airline safety instructions. Put your own oxygen mask on before helping any others with theirs.

    Rand’s writings, to me, were more about personal freedom and all the good th at came from it, including economic good.

    Rand’s Russian background had her ripping on that failed system long before a lot of people caught on. She knew what dangers collectivist government posed to individual freedom, unlike many who swooned over the Soviet Union from its revolution right up to and almost through Reagan, who finally stopped playing footsy with that failed system.

    1. PM says:

      Have you read the recent biographies of Rand? What do you think of them–and her–after reading?

      I have not read any of her works, nor have I read the biographies–only the reviews. Clearly, she appears to be something of a whack job in terms of the life she lived. How does that affect your opinions of her philosophy?

      (Marx, of course, managed to go off to the British Library each day to write while the wife and kids starved at home, so Rand’s “unconventional” life is more of a theme shared by many authors and philosophers and thinkers (even bloggers?) as opposed to a special deficiency affecting only her theories….)

  8. Mike Kennedy says:

    She was a weird duck. I think she pursued and had an affair with a 19 year old kid while encouraging him to marry his girlriend. Now that’s a bit kinky. She definitely seemed to live a strange life.

    I try not to judge people’s personal lives, though we are so consumed with that today. I don’t think their offbeat lifestyle has much of an effect on their thinking, writing, policies (or golfing).

    Although I’ve lived a fairly boring life (relative to some of the stuff I’ve seen and read), I don’t think I want people judging me based on that — on second thought, in my business, maybe I do.

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      To be thought of as “conventional” would I’m pretty sure be anathema to everything Rand thought of herself and encouraged in the aspiration of others.

    2. “I think she pursued and had an affair with a 19 year old kid while encouraging him to marry his girlriend.”

      Thereby taking care of herself and helping others, too! Talk about teaching a man to fish…

  9. Dennis Lang says:

    MK–Just read the Spinrad interview. Great fun. I don’t know. I think in many respects she’s screwy but love the way she expresses herself, just the rhythms, the use of language, the interior logic of the ideas, kind of intoxicating, and she’s no dummy. Thanks for the link.

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      PS: Isn’t anyone at all troubled that the word “compassion” likely never appears in the 1700 collective pages or so of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged”, or if it does it’s only to be disparaged? The “virtue of selfishness” is an everyman for himself principle that underlies her moral and political philosophy. Make sense?

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