Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Did Ayn Rand Make an Intellectual Error?

Just came back from a book forum at Cato Institute which featured Jay Richards author of Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem. I haven't read the book yet, but one member in the audience called it the best book since Henry Hazlitt's Economics In One Lesson in making economics easy to understand.

I was impressed with Richards comments at the forum. He seems to truly understand free market economics and and the errors others make when calling for various government interventions in the economy.

During his comments, he pointed out that one of Ayn Rand's books is titled The Virtue of Selfishness and contrasted this with the writings of Adam Smith, where Richards claimed Smith focused on self interest as the factor driving free markets to produce products beneficial for the entire economy, not selfishness.

During the Q&A, I asked him if he thought Rand missed the distinction between self interest and selfishness, or did she see something in selfishness beyond self interest. He answered by saying he would have loved to have Rand there to answer the question, but that he felt Rand was intellectually weak in using the word selfishness. He said that, if you look at all Rand's heroic characters in her novels, they act in self interest, not selfishness.


  1. I think it's "intellectually weak" for a person to comment on a book without bothering to pick it up and read it, because if he had he would have seen that she was very particular in her use of that word.

    From the introduction to this book, Ayn writes: "The title of this book may evoke the kind of question that I hear once in a while: "Why do you use the word 'selfishness' to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?" To those who ask it, my answer is: "For the reason that makes you afraid of it."

  2. Steve,

    I think from my reading of Rand that she did mean more of "self-interest" than "selfishness" and that she borrowed this idea from Max Stirner's egoist philosophy.

    I also think that it was an "intellectual error" of Rand's to purposefully choose a word just to antagonize her when there was already a better word that whose definition was identical to the idea she was actually trying to promote. For someone who was as obsessed with checking premises and definitions as she was (rightfully so), it seems like either sloppiness or malice to have slipped like that.

    Rand wasn't perfect. She also advocated a self-contradictory political philosophy (minarchism) despite her strongly argued social philosophy (private property). Galt's Gulch was a distinctly anarchist/voluntaryist society and yet she ridiculed anarchism with the same trite, cliched and easily refuteable arguments that your average statist/socialist uses to try to justify their own aggression. The only difference is she was about ten times more self-righteous in the way she did so then most of those squeamish, relativistic half-wit creeps are.

  3. Taylor, you say "from my reading of Rand". That's pretty non-specific; Have you read the book in question? Or are you also judging the author by the title alone?

  4. Steve,

    Would you cool it?

    I have read a number of Rand's fiction and non-fiction works, including this book, which I have also purchased for other people as an advocate.

    Do you have a disagreement with what I just said in connection to the passage you yourself just quoted?

  5. I think "self interest" may even be too strong a term to characterise Smith. In this quote he refers to the 'effort to better one's condition'.

    "The uniform, constant and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition, the principle from which public and national, as well as private opulence is originally derived, is frequently powerful enough to maintain the natural progress of things toward improvement, in spite both of the extravagance of government, and of the greatest errors of administration. Like the unknown principle of animal life, it frequently restores health and vigour to the constitution, in spite, not only of the disease, but of the absurd prescriptions of the doctor. "

    When engaged in discussions along these lines in the past, I would characterise Smithian individualism as not so much about "selfish" or even "self interested motivations" but about "self chosen means".

  6. Rand's conception of self-interest:

    And her conception of selfishness is here:

    Rational self-interest refers to here system of ethics, and selfishness is the corresponding virtue within that system.

    (Rand regarded the word "rational" in "rational self-interest" as redundant but used it for clarity.

  7. One must remember that there is a difference between rational self-interest and perceived self-interest.

    If everyone acted with rational self-interest, there would be no Modern Liberalism.