The Randian free lunch

29/08/2012 § 3 Comments

With the selection of Paul Ryan, the writings and philosophy of Ayn Rand are getting exposure like they haven’t had in years. At least not since her most famous disciple, Alan Greenspan, declared he might have been mistaken. That’s caused me to think more about her than I have for decades.

Like many people, I read Rand as a teenager. My sister lent me Atlas Shrugged with some excitement. As it turned out, I was inoculated from Rand’s charms in a peculiar way. I had already read Voltaire and Swift, Camus and Sartre. Compared to them, Rand was clumsy. I can understand the appeal of political novels. You can invent a world that is just so. Your characters are reasonably and naturally pushed into situations that justify your philosophy. But they must, to my mind, at least be passably novelistic. Rand failed on that criterion. And if she couldn’t explain her philosophy with a certain versimilitude, then it couldn’t be useful in the world.

Now, I’m finding lots of commentary on her — what she said, how she lived, whom she influenced. Her work is based on a central notion of man versus society (one of the three main literary conflicts according to my 10th grade English class). The individual must stand strong against the pressures of society, live by his rules, etc.

This leads to my economic criticism. One of the key useful ideas from economics is that there is no free lunch. If there’s a benefit, if there’s an impact, if there’s a capacity, then it came from something. And that something needs to be paid for.

Rand’s individual standing alone clearly has the capacity to fend for himself and the ability to communicate. He did not invent these skills; he did not birth himself fully capable. Those capabilities are the product of that individual and the others around him — family, community, society. They are also the result of a history, both technological and cultural.

Language is, to me, the best and most basic example of the impossibility of Rand’s vision. An individual does not have a language. Language is a cooperative creation, one with a history and community of participants. If an individual wants to communicate thoughts — about parasites on the social order or the importance of the gold standard or other Randian notion — he has to have a language. That language pre-dated him and exists without him. He depends on it, and cannot create it himself.

Rand wants her heroes to be not just self-sufficient but self-produced. Rand’s ability to criticise society depends, ironically, on society’s creations. People have had to use and develop language, and then teach it to her hero. Cultures have maintained expressions and cadences, which the hero exploits. Authors have created new word combinations, which the hero expropriates.

Rand wants, amongst other things, communication without society. She wants to use the communication without paying for it. She wants, at root, a free lunch.

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§ 3 Responses to The Randian free lunch

  • Andrew says:

    This Bill is a beautiful critique of individualism in general, exercised very nicely through a critique of Rand. I also thoroughly enjoyed your tacit employment of Lacan ;-).

    Perhaps if Ryan actually read Voltaire instead of listening to someone read someone else’s thoughts on Voltaire in the car he might ‘hear’ something different!

    • Bill says:

      Thanks, Andrew. Lacan is obviously an unspoken influence here — perhaps the Father who may not be Named? I think I need to re-read _Voltaire’s Bastards_.

  • No no. You’ve clearly missed all the prequels to Atlas. Where the caveman who invents the first word is stoned by his fellows but the word sticks. And other heroes follow, inventing more words. And so language. And so communication.

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