Was Ayn Rand an intellectual Stalin?

Grégoire Canlorbe is a French intellectual entrepreneur. He currently resides in Paris. He interviewed me for The Foundation for Economic Education. Excerpt below:

Grégoire Canlorbe: According to me, the underlying force that makes Ayn Rand’s heroes so addictive is power. They are in the railroad industry, a 130-year-old business built by the ingenuity and hard work of thousands. But they perceive themselves as the pilots of the entire system, self-made people who are giving society its hidden muscles. They have no clue that they are piloting a legacy and that they owe what they are to the work of a mob of others, not just to themselves. That’s how they are able to deceive themselves into radical individualism. So Rand’s philosophy is about self-deception in the name of raw power and at its heart is Rand’s lust for power over others, over a growing mass of followers.

Power and influence are two human needs deeply intertwined. Metaphorically speaking, we are built as modules in a collective brain, i.e., a collective information-processing machine. Power and influence are two of the most important passions, passions that churn the information exchange of the system into overdrive; or into under-drive if one person takes over and exerts totalitarian power. Ultimately, Ayn Rand was a totalitarian icon, an intellectual Stalin.

What would be your counterattack?

Stephen Hicks: Your question raises two major issues: Who gets credit for what in collaborative enterprises, and what is the nature of power?

Clearly we form social organizations because we think we can achieve more by working together. Sometimes we work together by jointly exerting effort on a single thing — e.g., as when a number of together will lift a heavy log that none of them could lift individually. And sometimes we work together by first dividing of labor into specialties and then, by means of managers who develop systems, coordinating the outputs of those specialties—e.g., any assembly line.

So the individualist will affirm the value of the social, but insist upon two sub-points.

One is that the effort involved is individual. Each individual who helps lift the log must individually commit the effort, as must each individual on the assembly line. And what’s true for simple muscular effort is true for the cognitive effort that is of fundamental importance for human life. Every original thought is an individual one, achieved by individual effort, and even when we learn from each other we have to exert individual effort. There is great value in cognitive networks, but each individual in the network adds value only to the extent that he or she thinks.

My reading of Rand is that she was exquisitely sensitive to this point. Her great heroine, the railroad executive Dagny, reverently acknowledges her debt to her grandfather, Nathaniel, the founder of the railroad, and she expresses appreciation for all of those in the company — line-workers, engineers, office administrators, executive assistants — who help make the incredibly complex railroad system function.

The second sub-point is that not all individuals in a collaborative project add value equally. For example, the individual on the assembly line who has been taught to attach the widget to the framister — he is adding value to the product by doing so efficiently. But he does not add as much value as the person who designed the assembly line in the first place. The person who designed the system could attach widgets to framisters, but often the person who attaches widgets to framisters could not design a system.

Abilities are individualized and unequal, and the value-added of those abilities is also individualized and unequal.

How we measure the differing degrees of value-added and decide who gets how much money, praise, or fame—that is complicated. But that’s what we each try to do when exercising our individual judgments about each other and, more impersonally, what markets try to do in determining salaries and other prices.

Now, about power. Power is essential to human life and comes in many forms: muscular, intellectual, moral, economic, political, and so on. But there is a very clear distinction between:

  • Someone with a strong desire for knowledge and wealth — and who insists that individuals should earn their own and exchange with others only by voluntary means — that is, free minds in open discussion and debate and free markets of production and trade; and
  • Someone with a strong desire to impose a belief system upon others and to censor conflicting beliefs by means of political power — that is, by the thought police — and who forces others to work on collectivized projects and then confiscates their product — again by means of political power.

That’s the difference between Rand and Stalin.

Here is a PDF of the full interview.  

2 thoughts on “Was Ayn Rand an intellectual Stalin?

  • October 16, 2017 at 11:04 am

    I’m astonished that you’d bother with such an obvious smear-job. (Spoilers ahead, if you need warned….)

    As for power/influence: John Galt was a salaried employee working for a firm. He was hardly a captain of industry. Even in the valley, while he is a moral leader, his job is to run a power plant and perform maintenance–vital jobs, but hardly what we’d call a powerful position in and of itself! Then you have Jim Taggart’s wife, who never had power beyond what her acquired social status gave her. She earned that status, so we can’t say she got it from marrying Jim, but at the end of the day she was “Jim Taggart’s wife”, not someone in power. Then there’s the Wet Nurse, who had power in the Progressive sense and gave it away. Then there’s….well, all the other protagonists, who abandon positions of power to work in a valley a few miles long. That’s hardly the activity of someone hungry for power!!

    As for the mob, there are three striking examples in the novel of what a mere mob does to industry (and it’s telling that this commenter used that term, rather than one with more positive implications): The 20th Century Motor Company, the fate of Rearden Steel, and the mob holding lanterns in the Taggart Terminal tunnels. (Note that in all three cases, when “the mob” was composed of thinking individuals, these organizations were profitable, life-giving companies in which the owners and employees respected one another and treated each other, if not exactly as equals, than as colleagues. See our introduction to Hank Rearden and Dagney Taggart.)

    As for not understanding that several of them were inheriting a legacy, that’s simply absurd. Dagney and Francisco knew perfectly well they had inherited a legacy–but they knew the value of that legacy. They didn’t imagine themselves building their industries, but rather as CAPABLE OF building them, and therefore worthy of inheriting the legacy in the first place. Their knowledge of the legacy they were abandoning is what made it so hard to do so. John Galt again serves as a counter-point: His father was a small-time gas station owner somewhere in Ohio, and he had no legacy at all. Ragnar demonstrates this even more clearly: he inherited a legacy, found it to be unworthy, and discarded it. These people do not ignore the past, but they didn’t venerate it; they evaluate it.

    Someone who can miss these ideas in “Atlas Shrugged” either didn’t read the book, didn’t do so honestly (ie, making a good-faith effort to understand the author’s intent), or is functionally illiterate (they can read words, even define them, but not understand the concepts they represent). Rand wasn’t a subtle author, at least when it comes to these points: she beats you over the head with them over and over and over again. No honest reading of the book can lead the reader to the conclusions this commenter arrived at.

  • October 17, 2017 at 7:19 am

    first paragraph of the interview is already based on false premise.

    “… They have no clue that they are piloting a legacy and that they owe what they are to the work of a mob of others, not just to themselves…”

    they dont owe anything. Since they paid for it in wages. if someone traded you a apple for a piece of gold… you dont say that u owe that person your meal.
    You exchanged goods for value. And thats how work works.

    the value of Taggart business is that its value is bigger then the sum of its parts.

    and to add.
    when I go home… I dont think my boss owes me anything. I got my salary… and its a contract approved by both sides. -no loose ends

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