Jonathan Chait on Ayn Rand

Jonathan Chait's review essay taking off from two new books about Ayn Rand, one of the most interesting and influential intellectual figures of 20th century, somehow manages to take the form of an extended defense of the redistribution of income and wealth. The bizarro-Rumpelstiltskin of the welfare state, Chait could spin gold into a defense of the redistribution of income and wealth, and he probably has! The problem with his Rand essay is that he spins away with only haphazard reference to Rand's work or thought. The root of the problem, I think, is twofold. First, Chait doesn't much care to know about Ayn Rand's work or thought, but wanted to pen a good Tea Party-pooping Ayn Rand slapdown anyway. Second, he lazily confuses a certain syndrome of anti-redistributive thinking common among Glenn Beck aficionados, in which some Randian themes certainly do appear, with Rand's own thought.

The meat of Chait's essay is devoted to beating up the false idea that levels of income and wealth roughly correspond to levels of effort, productivity, or some other exercise of virtue. This line of thinking eventually leads Chait into an examination of the overall progressivity of the American tax system. (Less progressive than you might think!) But what does this have to do with Ayn Rand?

Chait writes:

[T]he Randian inversion of the Marxist worldview … rests upon a series of propositions that can be falsified by data.

Let us begin with the premise that wealth represents a sign of personal virtue–thrift, hard work, and the rest–and poverty the lack thereof.

He then proceeds to beat up on some Republicans.

As Chait points out, Rand plumped for Wilkie in 1940, but she was no Republican. More to the point, Rand did not think income and wealth represents a sign of virtue — of hard work, productivity, or anything else. Being an intelligent person, she thought that who got how much of what depended on the complex interplay of culture and the structure of the political economy. She did think that those who through effort or industry improve others' lives ought to see the value of their work acknowledged and rewarded in some form or other. But no one would infer from Rand's novels and nonfiction that the United States looks, or in her day looked, anything like her ideal.

Rand was a radical critic of what she saw as our debased culture and “mixed economy.” In her biting words, a mixed economy is

a mixture of capitalism and statism, of freedom and controls. A mixed economy is a country in the process of disintegration, a civil war of pressure-groups looting and devouring one another.

Hey! That's us! Massive political bailouts to banks and auto manufacturers and seething political strife over the expansion of redistributive “entitlements” are precisely the kinds of things Rand had in mind.

Let's take a moment to think of the many ways worldly success and moral merit come apart in Rand's immensely influential fiction. In The Fountainhead, Peter Keating traces the trajectory of the sell-out. He achieves professional success through slavish conformity to banal popular taste. He is the archetype of Rand's despised “second-hander.” Rand's point is not that pathetic second-handers with desperate cravings for external validation do not work their way into the top income decile. Her point is that they do! But they don't really deserve it. If there's cosmic justice, it's in the fact that successful second-handers are miserable because they know they don't deserve it. Rand's condemnation of Keating is also a not-very-subtle condemnation of popular taste, which she generally judges execrable. Whatever else it might be, The Fountainhead is a searing critique of getting ahead by giving the people what they want. From a quick read of Rand's lesser doorstop, one might suspect that, exceptional cases aside, the distributions of both income and social esteem bear a strong relationship to skill at peddling popular bullshit.

Rand emphasizes that in a world of second-handers, a great single-minded artist might die broke and mostly forgotten. That's the sub-plot of Henry Cameron in The Fountainhead. And if not for the intervention of the surprising philosophical and oratorical talents suddenly summoned by the book's taciturn hero at his bombing trial (one man's terrorism is another man's unflinching aesthetic vision!), Howard Roark would have gotten a good harsh dose of criminal justice and ended up rotting in jail, like notable theory-driven bombers Ted Kazcynski and Timothy McVeigh, instead of skating like Bill Ayers. That Roark ends up surveying the world that has become his oyster from his uncompromising skyscraper with his uncompromising gal is a triumph of hopeful narrative malfeasance over the bitter penniless ruin that is otherwise depicted as the great man's predictable lot.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand doesn't much conceal her disgust at James Taggart, the immensely wealthy heir to a railroad fortune who tries to consolidate the position of his inherited company through political pull. In Rand's taxonomy of villains, he is a “looter.” Rand's point is not that looters don't get ahead. Her point is they do. And it works because actually productive people are either too dumb or guilty to grasp that moralizing political rhetoric is as often as not a bullshit front for corporatist political predation. From a quick read of Atlas Shrugged, one might expect that the distribution of income and social esteem in a “mixed economy” bears a strong relationship to membership in pressure groups, and the quality of their lobbyists and PR flaks.

The mostly tragic world of Atlas Shrugged is one in which the truly creative and productive are rewarded with unending resentment and exploitation while politically-connected corporations pay Washington insiders to rig the mechanisms of redistributive democratic politics to reel in and lock down unearned gains. Rand thought the world we actually live in is dangerously close to the one she depicted.

Rand does not valorize the wealthy. She valorizes the uncompromising integrity of creative visionaries and the productivity of inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs. But there is little to assure the reader that the virtues she extols really pay. Rand's view of the world was actually pretty bleak, pretty Russian. Her best novel, We the Living, is best precisely because she had yet to philosophically suppress her tragic instincts. One of the least plausible and certainly the saddest aspects of Rand's thought is what she called the “benevolent universe premise” — a kind of as-if attitudinal stance of positivity meant to ensure “the inability to believe in the power or the triumph of evil.” She goes on:

No matter what corruption one observes in one’s immediate background, one is unable to accept it as normal, permanent or metaphysically right. One feels: “This injustice (or terror or falsehood or frustration or pain or agony) is the exception in life, not the rule.” One feels certain that somewhere on earth—even if not anywhere in one’s surroundings or within one’s reach—a proper, human way of life is possible to human beings, and justice matters.

“One feels…” This is Rand's leap of faith, her animal spirit, her will to believe. She needed her silly, contrived happy endings — and she thought we needed them — to maintain the will to do the right thing, to fight for justice, despite every indication that it's a bad bet. Rand thought we need to feel that effort and virtue will be rewarded, or else we will, rationally enough, stop supplying effort and virtue. And then we'll all be good and truly screwed. Make of this what you will, but it is very far from the vulgar Calvinism that sees a person's level of success as an indicator of their merit.

Now, I'm more than willing to snicker right along with Chait at ridiculously puffed-up computer engineers who threaten to “Go Galt” at the first hint of an impending tax hike while blithely enjoying the wage subsidy of the United State's super-stingy H1-B visa cap. But he's really just careless in conflating the views of Ayn Rand's confused fans with Ayn Rand's own. I'm delighted there are two important new books that take Rand seriously as a woman, writer, and thinker. It's too bad that Chait uses their publication as an occasion to once again take a brave stand for the redistributive state.