There's been an explosion of popular interest in the novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand lately, and not only because I wrote a book called Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong and Why It Matters (which, I'm happy to report, is selling quite well). Rand died nearly three decades ago, but her Objectivist philosophy has made headlines for two different reasons in the past couple of weeks.
She's been a sore point lately for Republican Congressman and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, an avowed admirer. Several Christian groups have been asking why a conservative politician with "family values" credentials would admire and follow the work of a stringent atheist with provocatively modern ideas. Ryan, a Catholic, claims not to be influenced by Rand's dislike of religion, but this answer does not seem to be satisfying his critics. A group called the American Values Network has begun targeting both Rand and Ryan in television commercials, and the Congressman was caught in a "gotcha" video dodging a persistent critic who tries to give him a Bible while asking "why did you choose to model your budget after the extreme ideology of Ayn Rand, rather than on the basis of economic justice and values in the Bible?" Time Magazine calls this Paul Ryan's Ayn Rand Problem.
I can't help feeling some satisfaction here. I generally try to be sympathetic towards the ideas of those I disagree with, but I'm appalled by Paul Ryan's recent proposal to replace Medicare with vouchers for private insurance (fortunately, most of the United States of America seems to agree with me, though the Republican Party can't seem to make up it's mind where it stands on Medicare). The fact that Ryan would rather see the destruction of a health care system that helps senior citizens than allow the federal government to increase taxes on millionaires and billionaires tells me all I need to know about Paul Ryan's priorities as a politician, and casts doubt on both his moral judgment and his common sense. I can barely think of another current politician I dislike more than Paul Ryan.
On the other hand, Paul Ryan's philosophical bent and affection for Ayn Rand is probably the most (perhaps only) likable thing about him. I don't agree with Ayn Rand's ethical philosophy, and I don't agree with her atheism. I enjoy watching Paul Ryan get harassed by a Bible-thumping young conservative in the video above, but I wish the Bible-thumping young conservative were more offended by Ryan's anti-Medicare proposals than by his quirky affection for a controversial ethical philosopher. Oh well! I'll take my satisfaction wherever I can get it these days.
I've also been hearing a lot of positive buzz about a British television series called All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. This is the work of Adam Curtis, who has tackled controversial psychology/culture subjects like the influence of Sigmund Freud in previous BBC shows. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace stirs up the idea that computer technology is turning us into automotons, and that the ideological work of various scientific-minded "visionaries" of the 20th century has led us down this dangerous path.
This is a three-part series, and among the scientists, software innovators and pop psychologists that face Curtis's critique in the second and third parts are Arthur Tansley, who invented the word "ecosystem", Norbert Weiner, R. Buckminster Fuller, Stewart Brand, William Hamilton, Dian Fossey and Richard Dawkins. The first episode, though, is devoted almost entirely to Ayn Rand and her prize student Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve Board chairman who presided over the expansion of hedge-fund-based speculation that led to the disastrous economic crash of 2007 and 2008.
It's a riveting episode, well worth watching (via the YouTube link above if you don't have direct access to the BBC). I do agree with Adam Curtis that Randian Objectivism must have influenced Greenspan's hyper-capitalistic, profit-friendly (and ultimately toxic) economic policies (though, as many Objectivists have argued, the line of influence here is indirect). But I'm a little puzzled by the show's emphasis on innovations in computer technology-- Curtis, the narrator of the show, often spits the word "computers" out with palpable venom -- as the prime cause of hedge-fund mania.
Curtis is correct that computers made the type of precision "risk management" that crashed the economy possible, and he's also correct that a naive confidence in computer-based data modeling led to the dangerous ideas that esoteric financial structures could actually eliminate risk from investment (as if such a thing could ever be possible). Still, it's odd to hear Curtis speak of computers with such obvious dislike, as if they were responsible for nothing in the past twenty years except for the invention of advanced derivative trading. In my own life, computer technology has been a liberating force, and an enabler of creative expression. I'm sure most viewers will also disagree with this part of the show's message, a weak link in an otherwise strong and illuminating chain of ideas.
I've noted before that different identity groups seem to have come up with wildly varying ideas about who or what to blame for the economic crash of 2007/2008. Some conservative thinkers place the primary blame on over-eager home buyers who couldn't maintain their mortgage payment schedules. Adam Curtis blames computers for making hedge funds possible. I continue to feel strongly that the real culprit was the financial deregulation that took place between the Reagan, Bush and Clinton presidencies. During these decades, a fantasy took root that a deregulated financial industry would remain honest and stable. Blame the computers? No, I blame the government leaders who gave in to the Wall Street lobby's pleas for a regulation-free banking, investment and insurance system that would increase profits and generate extreme wealth (while also, unfortunately, risking a financial disaster that would hurt the middle class far more than it would hurt the wealthy).
I'm also not sure that Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace fairly represents Ayn Rand's philosophies (Rand, it seems to me, would never have felt comfortable with the collectivist impulses of most starry-eyed California tech-utopians). Still, though, it's a fascinating series full of many nuggets of surprising information. It also contains a few strange coincidences of personal interest for me. The title comes from a poem by the hippie writer Richard Brautigan, a big favorite of mine (he died just as the computer revolution was taking shape, so this is a bit of a sideways glance). The episode on Ayn Rand also includes interviews with several Silicon Alley and Silicon Valley executives of the 1990s who were influenced by Ayn Rand, and I was quite surprised to find among them Kevin O'Connor of DoubleClick, who I met several times during the Silicon Alley days, and wrote about (not very flatteringly) in my memoir of the dot-com years. I had no idea that Kevin O'Connor was a Randian. I wonder if he's a Paul Ryan supporter too.
This article is part of the Philosophy Weekend series. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Pyetsukh's Book, A British Festival. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Adam Hochschild and the Serious Study of War.