One function of this blog is to address comments made by academics and public intellectuals on Rand’s philosophy. Several weeks ago, research psychologist Denise Cummins wrote a piece on a PBS blog about what happens when people attempt to put Rand’s ideas into practice. Her aim there was not to engage with Rand’s ideas per se, but to discuss what happens when certain ideas are put into practice, and then to explain why these ideas lead to these results. That’s a reasonable project to take up with respect to an influential author’s views, and since one cannot be a universal expert, it is reasonable to rely on secondary or tertiary sources when pursuing such a project. But the sources on which Cummins seems to have relied were all amateurish hack-jobs that presented an unrecognizable distortion of Rand’s ideas. Cummins was criticized for this by, among others, my co-blogger, Ben Bayer. She has now returned with a second piece titled “What Ayn Rand got wrong about human nature.”
Though Cummins does not acknowledge the faults in her earlier piece or directly address the best criticisms of it, the new piece is a modest improvement. It quotes from a wider and more representative range of Rand’s writings, including some that show Rand’s appreciation of the value of society and cooperation—something that Cummins had ignored or denied in her earlier piece. Moreover, Cummins raises some points that fans of Rand may do well to consider, if they haven’t already. For example, to counter Rand’s view that socialism is necessarily destructive, Cummins observes that the countries that are regarded as most prosperous today “incorporate generous social programs with capitalist democracies.” (This issue has been addressed in various forms by Yaron Brook and Carl Svanburg at the Ayn Rand Institute, and by other anti-socialist authors, such as Peter Stein and Johan Norberg at the Cato Institute.)
However, Cummins still gets Rand wrong on a number of points, and I think she does so because she isn’t really interested in getting her right. This is a common problem when people write about those whom they regard as ideological enemies. They come at the enemy’s texts with a preconceived idea of what she thinks, why she thinks it, and how her view can be refuted; and then they look for passages that cohere with this, rather than approaching the texts with the question “What does this person think and why?” Cummins has Rand pigeon-holed as a thinker of a certain sort, who occupies a certain foolish position in a familiar debate about egoism and altruism, and she shows no interest in testing that hypothesis, or (better) in putting the hypothesis aside temporarily to see what emerges from a straightforward reading of the texts. This is a mistake we all have to work hard not to fall into when addressing authors whose views we regard as opposite to our own.
What does Cummins get wrong about Rand and what’s the evidence that she doesn’t care to get her right?
Notice how little attention Cummins pays to the issue of how Rand understands the terms “selfishness” and “altruism.” This is especially disappointing because readers had raised questions about this in connection with Cummins’s earlier piece, and because Rand often signals (including in a passage Cummins quotes) that she thinks that there is something misleading or distorted in the conventional understanding of these terms. Rand tells us what she means by “altruism” in a sentence (from her article “Faith and Force”) that immediately precedes a passage Cummins quotes. “Altruism” is the “moral code” that holds that:
[M]an has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his own existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest duty, virtue and value.
Cummins compares Rand’s view of altruism unfavorably to theories concerning “altruistic” behavior in non-human organisms, such as the “reciprocal altruism” discussed by Robert Trivers. But since Rand thinks of altruism as a moral theory, and (like many philosophers) thinks that morality applies only in the case of the freely willed actions of rational creatures, it’s clear that most of what is called “altruism” (reciprocal or otherwise) in biology is not the sort of thing that Rand could mean by that term.
Cummins is right that there is a parallel between the sorts of behaviors Trivers calls “reciprocal altruism” that exist even in non-human species and a kind of human interaction that Rand endorses—namely, dealing with others by voluntary interaction from which each party expects to benefit. But Trivers’ work does not relate to Rand’s view in the way that Cummins assumes.
There is a risk in any trade that one party will not hold up his end of the deal, thereby securing all of the benefits of the interaction and placing all of the costs on the other party. Cummins asserts that Rand’s reason for embracing selfishness is that Rand thought selfishness was “the best protection” against such exploitation. But Cummins doesn’t quote or cite any passages in which Rand reasons along these lines, and there are none to quote, because although Rand did think that altruism is exploitative, such breaches of contract are not the sort of exploitation she has primarily in mind; and, in any case, her opposition to altruism is not Rand’s central reason for being an egoist.
Cummins seems to think that both Rand’s egoism and her political views are based on her rejecting or being ignorant of the point that cooperative people can overcome the threat of exploiters by excluding people who have shown themselves to be exploiters “from subsequent cooperative ventures.” Cummins credits this point to Trivers, who mathematically modeled the effect of such exclusion in an evolutionary context, but the basic insight has been well known since prehistory, and Rand certainly didn’t disagree with it. On the contrary, Rand regarded justice as an essential virtue, because, by making and acting on rational moral judgments of others, we encourage virtue (including, but not limited to, honoring one’s agreements) and we discourage vice (including, but not limited to fraud) and minimize its impacts on us. Rand saw boycotts as an example of this principle, and the plot of Atlas Shrugged turns on a grand-scale example of it.
Cummins’ Rand, having failed to appreciate that exploiters could be punished by ostracism, concludes that “the primary role of the government [is] to arbitrate and enforce such contracts.” In fact the passage Cummins quotes to support this claim says only that interpreting and enforcing contracts is “one of the most important” functions of government, not its primary function; and it doesn’t give as a reason for this that the government is the only factor that plays any role in protecting people from bad deals. This is one area in which Rand’s view isn’t unconventional: like almost everyone else, Rand (as Cummins puts it) “expected government to play a role in maintaining fairness in market transactions.”
In an odd non sequitur, Cummins goes on to criticize Rand for endorsing laissez-faire capitalism—a system that Cummins holds responsible for, among other ills, the 2008 financial crisis. It should go without saying that the world financial system prior to the crash was not the “full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism” that Rand extolled. But it lacked a few regulations that some opponents of laissez-faire think should have in place, and many of these opponents think this lack contributed to the crisis. Some attribute the less-regulated character of the market to Alan Greenspan on whom Rand was a major influence. So, if the lack of the relevant regulations played a role in the crisis, a case could be made that Rand deserves part of the blame. But even supposing that Rand’s opposition to economic regulation was a costly mistake, how is it supposed to be related to her failure to recognize (as Trivers did) that organisms can reap the benefits of cooperation without the fear of endemic exploitation? If the point that we can effectively punish bad actors by refusing to deal with them is relevant to the issue of markets at all, isn’t it because it suggests that markets can be self-correcting, and therefore that they need little or no external government regulation?
Cummins goes on to cite additional criticisms of laissez-faire, to bemoan the alleged fact that “incarnations of John Galt continue to dominate economic policy” and to quote Elizabeth Warren to the effect that no one is solely responsible for his success. She concludes that even if some people do create fortunes on their own, they ought to share them because otherwise the masses may revolt and seize them and because “wealth must be distributed to keep the wheels of commerce turning.” Whatever merit there may be to any of these considerations, they are not arguments that Rand made some crucial error about human nature that’s led to economic collapse. They’re not real attempts on Cummins’ part to engage with a worldview contrary to her own. Instead, they’re presentations of her own reasons for opposing laissez-faire juxtaposed with indications that Rand held a contrary position. One can’t do everything in every piece, and there’s nothing wrong with a piece opposing laissez-faire that mentions a few of its advocates peripherally, without engaging with their arguments, but such a piece wouldn’t be about Rand, as Cummins’s purports to be.
Rand seems to be a pet peeve of Cummins’s recently. In another, overlapping blog post at Psychology Today, she argues that Rand is wrong on a number of issues: that people are born tabula rasa, that non-human animals cannot reason abstractly or transmit knowledge socially, that altruism leads inexorably to self-destruction, and that “the primary role of government is promoting laissez-faire capitalism.” There are good questions (all of which have been raised by others and some of which I may take up in another post) about whether some of Rand’s views about human nature are compatible with certain conclusions that many now take to have been established by cognitive psychology. But Cummins’s stated point in this article is to show how alleged errors in Rand’s theory of human nature account for her allegedly mistaken political views and for alleged failures that occur when her thought is put into practice. But Cummins shows no understanding of—and no real interest in—how the various views she criticizes actually relate in Rand’s thinking. What we see in Cummins’s musings on Rand is not a genuine attempt to diagnose the causes of some ghastly influence Rand has had on the world. These pieces, like much of what gets written about Rand, are just griping about a thinker that the author wishes would go away. It’s the same approach we find in the mocking video in which John Oliver wonders how Ayn Rand is “still a thing.”
Such pieces are vehicles through which those who find Rand distasteful can commiserate with one another and preen over their own erudition, without engaging people who think differently or contributing to any productive inquiry. Sure, there’s some combing through a few of Rand’s articles to find passages to gripe about, and there may even occasionally be decent arguments about stray points, but there isn’t any real intellectual engagement—no attempt to identify and evaluate the theses, arguments, and themes that so many readers find enlightening and inspiring in Rand’s works. The frequency of such gripes, especially in the last several years, attests to the enduring place Rand has earned in American thought. It is high time that those who find her ideas uncongenial accept this fact and begin treating her accordingly.