Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Raico, Burns and Heller on Ayn Rand

Richard Ebeling emails:

Dear Bob,

I was away over the weekend -- delivering some lectures and talks for the Nassau Institute in the Bahamas -- and I only caught up a bit, including reading your blog.

I was delighted to see the commentary by Ralph Raico on Ayn Rand and her significance in the cause of liberty.

I have read both of these new biographies of Ayn Rand, "Goddess of the Market" by Jennifer Burns and "Ayn Rand and the World She Made" by Anne C. Heller.

As is usually the case with biographies (and perhaps inescapably to some extent) the authors focus on the details of her life and personality, more than an explanation and exposition of her ideas.

As a result, there is a tendency to judge the ideas of the person by the "eccentricities" of their life. Thus, biographies can easily become "ad hominems," i.e., evaluations of the person's ideas on the basis of an evaluation of the personality of the subject.

Both of the authors do this, though to different extents. Burns is clearly far more sympathetic to Rand's ideas, while Heller finds her a courageous women who had a strong will and determination to follow her conceptions of the role of reason and freedom. But Heller is not an advocate of the classical liberal/libertarian or Objectivist point-of-view.

And, indeed, at times Heller's narrative almost becomes a form of "psycho-babble" in that she traces Rand's ideas to the horror of her experience in Russia following the Bolshevik takeover (including the treatment of her father, who lost everything to the regime) and her ideal of the "heroic" and "ideal" man based upon an fictional adventure story Rand read when she was a small girl. Thus, the impression is created that Rand's ideas are intellectual "rationalizations" from emotional experiences from her youth.

Sometimes both authors get the facts wrong. Heller doesn't seem to know the history of the early communist years in Russia (including when Lenin's New Economic Policy started and ended), and Burns creates the impression that Rand had not read Aristotle until she was in America, when, in fact, (as Heller correctly explains) Rand studied Aristotle during her years at the university in Petrograd.

Both, to the point of ad nausium, focus on the "peculiarity" and details of Rand's relationship with Nathaniel Branden. The last chapter of Burns' book narrowly discusses Rand's "break" with her libertarian followers and makes it appear that it was "all about" limited government vs. anarchy. And Heller's concluding chapters merely narrate Rand's supposedly growing dogmatism and intolerance toward those who did not show absolute loyalty and agreement with her every word.

Indeed, Heller practically makes Rand seem like a victim of being a "second-hander" who fell into depression and anger because academia and the mainstream media refused to recognize her. Thus, Rand is presented as someone whose self-esteem was dependent upon how others viewed her. In other words, Ayn Rand as a type of Peter Keating in "The Fountainhead."

Heller's book, therefore, perhaps for the sensationalism, comes across as more in the genre of "kiss and tell." Burns' book fails both as a thorough biography or an acceptable presentation of Rand's ideas in the context of her life and times.

Ayn Rand was certainly not a "perfect person." Like the rest of us, she had her strengths and weaknesses. And she even had her "complexes." (Don't we all?)

But both books fail in different ways and at different levels to give Rand her due, and to really highlight the true extent to which it would be unimaginable to see how there would have been a classical liberal-like revival of the ideal of liberty in the post-World War II era without her writings.

I remember so well how I first read her books in the mid-1960s and what a revelation was. I have never thought about mind, man, and society the same way again. She clarified everything for a young man who was living through the "Fascist New Frontier" and the collectivism of LBJ's "Great Society." And through her writings I discovered much of the related literature of economic freedom (Frederic Bastiat, Ludwig von Mises, and Henry Hazlitt, for example), which rounded out and enriched my understanding of true liberalism and its eternal value and importance.

Ayn Rand was and remains one of the giants in the history and philosophy of freedom in the modern era. She waits a biographer who can do her full justice.

Dr. Richard Ebeling is currently a faculty member in the Economics department at Northwood University in Midland, MI.

1 comment:

  1. The Burns book vastly increased my respect for Rand as a person and intellectual force, and helped me see Rand's fundamental mistake in the area of intellectual property, and my own view is that nearly all Rand's theoretical problems and the failings of the movement are due to this one problem. I'm really in Burns's debt for this. So I guess I think this review underrates Burn's contribution.

    She also deals very sensitively with Rand's relationship with Mises and Rothbard. I had read nearly everything that archive but Burns explains it in a way that I had not understood. In fact, I'm now pretty sure that Rothbard's views toward Hayek were strongly influenced by Rand's own (and I don't really agree with the evaluation of either Rand or Rothbard in that respect)