The great economist Bryan Caplan is notable for showing the plausibility, sometimes even the truth, of counterintuitive ideas. But occasionally his arguments recoil on themselves. So it is with his article “‘Sanction’: The Triumph of Ayn Rand’s Worst Idea,” recently sent out to his Substack subscribers.1
Therein he argues that long-dead philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand is responsible for much of the nastiness of today’s public discourse. Sort of. He acknowledges that the problem, as it exists today, couldn’t have come from Rand, at least not directly: “Is Rand really causally responsible for modernity’s moral intolerance? Probably not; the lines of intellectual communication don’t fit.”
They don’t fit, says Caplan, because—despite the fact that Rand’s novels have topped readers’ polls of the best and most influential American literature of the 20th century, despite the fact that Rand’s ideas helped birth the modern liberty movement of which Caplan is a part—so many people “love to hate” her, which has meant (again, in Caplan’s estimate) “that she has not been broadly influential.” Yet, counterintuitively, “One of Rand’s most peculiar positions has spread like wildfire.”
Caplan’s concern here is not to explain but bemoan this aberration, the “triumph” of the idea that justice requires morally evaluating those one deals with and never sitting by silently while one’s values are being attacked. He quotes from Rand’s response to a reader’s question, “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?” . . .
Click To Tweet
You might also like
1. The article originally was published five years ago, but he recently resent it to subscribers (apparently in preparation for a debate with a fan of Rand). See Bryan Caplan, “‘Sanction’: The Triumph of Ayn Rand’s Worst Idea,” EconLib, November 4, 2018, https://www.econlib.org/sanction-the-triumph-of-ayn-rands-worst-idea/. Also available at https://open.substack.com/pub/betonit/p/sanction-the-triumph-of-ayn-rands-worst-idea.
2. Caplan’s quote includes an errant “a,” which does not appear in Rand’s published piece.
3. Ayn Rand, “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?,” The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New York: New American Library, 1964), 82.
4. Caplan, “‘Sanction’: The Triumph of Ayn Rand’s Worst Idea.”
5. Objectivism is the name of Rand’s philosophy, and Objectivists are those who ascribe to it and live by it.
6. Ayn Rand, “This is John Galt Speaking,” For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1963), 173.
7. Rand, “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?,” 82–83.
8. Rand, “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?,” 84.
9. Rand, “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?,” 84.
10. See, for instance, Dennis C. Rasmussen, Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021).