The complement of Atlas Shrugged

A few months ago I read Atlas Shrugged, the 1,069-page Ayn Rand opus that was recently praised by Stephen Colbert (for its newfound popularity with beleaguered CEOs).  As I mentioned in the comments of a previous post, like many other nerds I went through a brief Aynfatuation around the age of 14.  Rand’s portrayal of an anti-mind, anti-reason cabal of collectivist rulers, who spout oleaginous platitudes about love and self-sacrifice even as they mercilessly repress any spark of individuality, happens to be extremely relevant to at least two cases I’m aware of:

  1. Soviet Russia.
  2. The average American high school.

But it didn’t last long.  Even in the midst of it, I could see problems: I wrote a term paper analyzing the rape scene in The Fountainhead as immoral and irreconcilable with the rest of an otherwise supremely-rational novel.  And ironically, once I went to college and started doing more-or-less what Rand extols as life’s highest purposes—pursuing my ambitions, tackling math and science problems, trying to create something original—her philosophy itself seemed more and more quaint and irrelevant.  I snapped out of it before I reached Atlas.  (Or did I subconsciously fear that, if I did read Atlas, I’d be brainwashed forever?  Or did I just figure that, having read the 752-page Fountainhead and dozens of essays, I already got the basic idea?)

So, having now returned to Atlas out of curiosity, what can I say?  Numerous readers have already listed the reasons why, judged as a conventional novel, it’s pretty bad: wooden dialogue, over-the-top melodrama, characters barely recognizable as human.  But of course, Atlas doesn’t ask to be judged as a conventional novel.  Rand and her followers clearly saw it as a secular Bible: a Book of Books that lays out for all eternity, through parables and explicit exhortation, what you should value and how you should live your life.  This presents an obvious problem for me: how does one review a book that seeks, among other things, to define the standards by which all books should be reviewed?

Mulling over this question, I hit on an answer: I should look not at what’s in the book—whose every word is perfect by definition, to true believers who define ‘perfect’ as ‘that exemplified by Atlas Shrugged‘—but at what’s not in it.  In other words, I should review the complement of the book.  By approaching the donut through the hole, I will try to explain how, even considering it on its own terms, Atlas Shrugged fails to provide an account of human life that I found comprehensive or satisfying.

(Though on the positive side, it still makes much more sense than my 11th-grade English teacher.)

Without further ado, here are the ten most striking things I noticed in the complement of Atlas Shrugged.

  1. Recent technologies.  For a novel set in the future, whose whole point is to defend capitalism, technology, innovation, and industry, Atlas is startlingly uninterested in any technologies being developed at the time it was written (the fifties).  For Rand, the ultimate symbol of technological progress is the railroad—though she’s also impressed by steel mills, copper mines, skyscrapers, factories, and bridges.  Transistors, computers, space travel, and even plastic and interstate highways seem entirely absent from her universe, while nuclear energy (which no one could ignore at the time) enters only metaphorically, through the sinister “Project X.”  Airplanes, which were starting to overtake trains as a form of passenger travel even as Atlas was written, do play a tiny role, though it’s never explained where the busy protagonists learned to pilot.  Overall, I got the impression that Rand didn’t really care for technology as such—only for what certain specific, 19th-century technologies symbolized to her about Man’s dominance over Nature.
  2. Curiosity about the physical universe.  This, of course, is related to point 1.  For Rand, the physical world seems to be of interest only as a medium to be bent to human will.  When I read The Fountainhead as a teenager, I found myself wondering what Rand would’ve made of academic scientists: people who generally share her respect for reason, reality, and creative achievement, but not her metaphysical certainty or her hatred of all government planning.  (Also, while most male scientists resemble a cross between Howard Roark and John Galt, it must be admitted that a tiny minority of them are awkward nerds.)
    In Atlas, Rand finally supplies an answer to this question, in the form of Dr. Robert Stadler.  It turns out that in Rand’s eschatology, academic scientists are the worst evil imaginable: people smart enough to see the truth of her philosophy, but who nevertheless choose to reject it.  Science, as a whole, does not come off well in Atlas: the country starves while Stadler’s State Science Institute builds a new cyclotron; and Dr. Floyd Ferris, the author of obscurantist popular physics books, later turns into a cold-blooded torturer.  (That last bit, actually, has a ring of truth to it.)
    More important, in a book with hundreds of pages of philosophizing about human nature, there’s no mention of evolution; in a book obsessed with “physics,” there’s no evidence of any acquaintance with relativity, quantum mechanics, or pretty much anything else about physics.  (When Stadler starts talking about particles approaching the speed of light, Dagny impatiently changes the subject.)  It’s an interesting question whether Rand outright rejected the content of modern science; maybe we’ll pick up that debate in the comments section.  But another possibility—that Rand was simply indifferent to the sorts of things an Einstein, Darwin, or Robert Stadler might discover, that she didn’t care whether they were true or not—is, to my mind, hardly more defensible for a “philosopher of reason.”
  3. Family.  Whittaker Chambers (of pumpkin patch fame) pointed out this startling omission in his review of 1957.  The characters in Atlas mate often enough, but they never reproduce, or even discuss the possibility of reproduction (if only to take precautions against it).  Also, the only family relationships portrayed at length are entirely negative in character: Rearden’s mother, brother, and wife are all contemptible collectivists who mooch off the great man even as they despise him, while Dagny’s brother Jim is the wretched prince of looters.  Any Republicans seeking solace in Atlas should be warned: Ayn Rand is not your go-to philosopher for family values (much less “Judeo-Christian” ones).
  4. “Angular,” attractive people who also happen to be collectivists, or “shapeless” people who happen to be rational individualists.  In the universe of Atlas, physical appearance is destiny—always, without exception, from John Galt down to the last minor villain.  Whenever Rand introduces a new character, you learn immediately, after a one-paragraph physical description, everything she wants you to know about that character’s moral essence: “angular” equals good, “limp,” “petulant,” and so on equal bad.  Admittedly, most movies also save the audience from unwanted thought by making similar identifications.  But Rand’s harping on this theme is so insistent, so vitriolic, that it leaves little doubt she really did accept the eugenic notion that a person’s character is visible on his or her face.
  5. Personalities.  In Atlas, as in The Fountainhead, each character has (to put it mildly) a philosophy, but no personality independent of that philosophy, no Objectively-neutral character traits.  What, for example, do we know about Howard Roark?  Well, he has orange hair, likes to smoke cigarettes, and is a brilliant architect and defender of individualism.  What do we know about John Galt?  He has gold hair, likes to smoke cigarettes, and is a brilliant inventor and defender of individualism.  Besides occupation and hair color, they’re pretty much identical.  Neither is suffered to have any family, culture, backstory, weaknesses, quirks, or even hobbies or favorite foods (not counting cigarettes, of course).  Yes, I know this is by explicit authorial design.  But it also seems to undermine Rand’s basic thesis: that Galt and Roark are not gods or robots, but ordinary mortals.
  6. Positive portrayal of uncertainty.  In Atlas, “rationality” is equated over and over with being certain one is right.  The only topic the good guys, like Hank and Dagny, ever change their minds about is whether the collectivists are (a) evil or (b) really, really evil.  (Spoiler alert: after 800 pages, they opt for (b).)  The idea that rationality might have anything to do with being uncertain—with admitting you’re wrong, changing your mind, withholding judgment—simply does not exist in Rand’s universe.  For me, this is the single most troubling aspect of her thought.
  7. Honest disagreements.  Atlas might be the closest thing ever written to a novelization of Aumann’s Agreement Theorem.  In RandLand, whenever two rational people meet, they discover to their delight that they agree about everything—not merely the basics like capitalism and individualism, but also the usefulness of Rearden Metal, the beauty of Halley’s Fifth Concerto, and so on.  (Again, the one exception is the disagreement between those who’ve already accepted the full evil of the collectivists, and those still willing to give them a chance.)  In “Galt’s Gulch” (the book’s utopia), there’s one judge to resolve disputes, but he’s never had to do anything since no disputes have ever arisen.
  8. History.  When I read The Fountainhead as a teenager, there was one detail that kept bothering me: the fact that it was published in 1943.  At such a time, how could Rand possibly imagine the ultimate human evil to be a left-wing newspaper critic?  Atlas continues the willful obliviousness to real events, like (say) World War II or the Cold War.  And yet—just like when she removes family, personality, culture, evolution, and so on from the picture—Rand clearly wants us to apply the lessons from her pared-down, stylized world to this world.  Which raises an obvious question: if her philosophy is rich enough to deal with all these elephants in the room, then why does she have to avoid mentioning the elephants while writing thousands of pages about the room’s contents?
  9. Efficient evil people.  In Atlas, there’s not a single competent industrialist who isn’t also an exemplar of virtue.  The heroine, Dagny, is a railroad executive who makes trains run on time—who knows in her heart that reliable train service is its own justification, and that what the trains are transporting and why is morally irrelevant.  Granted, after 900 pages, Dagny finally admits to herself that she’s been serving an evil cause, and should probably stop.  But even then, her earlier “don’t ask why” policy is understood to have been entirely forgivable: a consequence of too much virtue rather than too little.  I found it odd that Rand, who (for all her faults) was normally a razor-sharp debater, could write this way so soon after the Holocaust without thinking through the obvious implications.
  10. Ethnicity.  Seriously: to write two sprawling novels set in the US, with hundreds of characters between them, and not a single non-Aryan?  Even in the 40s and 50s?  For me, the issue here is not political correctness, but something much more basic: for all Rand’s praise of “reality,” how much interest did she have in its contents?  On a related note, somehow Rand seems to have gotten the idea that “the East,” and India in particular, were entirely populated by mystical savages sitting cross-legged on mats, eating soybeans as they condemned reason and reality.  To which I can only reply: what did she have against soybeans?  Edamame is pretty tasty.

Murray Rothbard and Eliezer Yudkowsky take different routes to some of the same conclusions.

110 Responses to “The complement of Atlas Shrugged”

  1. Shubhendu Says:

    At the risk of sounding lame. I’d say Wow! I never liked Rand’s works, though frankly I tried hard to like them. I will be thinking over your post. I’d say at present I agree.

  2. Cody Says:

    I’m a little confused on point 9: she wrote about train operators who worked hard by virtue and ignored the peripheral consequences of their hard work, and when later it turned out to have contributed to evil, were forgiven for their ignorance, and she didn’t intend this to be a direct commentary on the trains to the concentration camps?

    I liked that post a while back where Ayn and Karl confounded your internet service, I think it lead to a debate about Ayn’s take on science. I’ve never read any of her work and probably won’t, but I am interested to see what everyone has to say about her position with respect to science.

  3. Chris Granade Says:

    Well put. I’m glad that you’ve written this out so thoroughly. With how much respect some people give to Rand and her views, it’s good to be able to point at articles like this to show the problems of Objectivism.

    As for myself, if I had anything resembling a teenaged Rand phase, I’d think it started when I opened Anthem and ended by the time I’d shut it. Though I never really formally took Rand’s writing apart like this, it just never seemed to appeal to me. Then again, I never went to high school…

  4. Scott Says:

    Cody: Bizarre as it sounds, I don’t think Rand made the connection at all. She simply admired efficiency, and found it metaphysically unacceptable that it could be paired with anything other than virtue. “A is A,” and both of them were A to her.

  5. Jeremy Henty Says:

    I’d say that 7 and 2 are direct consequences of 6. If you hate uncertainty then you obviously cannot
    tolerate the idea that decent, thoughtful people could disagree. Likewise the very idea of research,
    ie. examining things that you don’t already understand, is anathema.

  6. Raoul Ohio Says:

    I read a few pages of AS in the early 60’s, thinking it was science fiction. Bummer.

    I find Rand interesting not for the details of her ideas, but as a prime exemplar of the many bizarre and simple minded philosophies that bubble to the surface with lots of adherents clinging to them. This is a clue into how the mind works. It might be similar to how certain music resonates with a lot of people at a moment in time.

    The wisenheimer columnist in Scientific American recently reviewed a model of human intelligence as an evolution of pattern recognition. He concluded that unfortunately most people didn’t get a functional BS detector. Bummer!

  7. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    The parallels between Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein are interesting. I was on a panel discussion about that once. Robert Heinlein most certainly did care about “Transistors, computers, space travel, and even plastic and interstate highways … [and] nuclear energy.” They were both highly political writers, with a libertarian streak, who valorized rationality and Engineering. They painted intense portraits of super-competent heroes, and evil populist manipulators. They both extolled Capitalism, and warned about Communism. And both were far more complicated human beings than most of their readers knew.

    “Every Cause Wants To Be A Cult” — as with, for example, the Cult of Singularity.

  8. Rick Sparks Says:

    “A few months ago I read Atlas Shrugged, the 1,069-page Ayn Rand opus that’s apparently been providing solace to beleaguered CEOs …”

    You give away you bias and complete misunderstanding of Rand’s work in only half a sentence. Those who thrive while feeding off the backs of others and concurrently understand what she very eloquently – admittedly, quite wordily – conveyed found no solace in the tome’s words at all.

    Essentially, you are throwing stones at the moon.

  9. Domenic Denicola Says:

    For 1, it’s set in an “alternate history.” Kind of like science fiction, just not necessarily future technologies. It’s a weird historical amalgam where certain technologies are futuristic, some are from 1943, and some reached their height previous to then. Similarly for the geopolitical situation. Not set in the future.

    I do resonate very much so with your points 2, 3, 6.

    4 and 5 (and to some extent 6) seem to be consequences of the “romantic novel” style of the book. (At least I think that’s what it’s called. You might find more detail in the preface or something of that sort?) Where the characters are not, in fact, real people, but are abstract representations of ideals. Whether or not this is effective or makes for good writing, is up for debate, but I think to criticize the characters as if they were in a normal book is a mistake.

    Overall I enjoyed the book immensely when I was 14; I wonder how I’d feel about it now at 20. My current attitude toward Objectivism is that it makes a lot of sense if you just take away the broad outlines and biases, but if you get swept up in the Randian fervor and start accepting all the details, you’re not going to do so well. It’s a simplistic picture of the world in the same sense that more general libertarianism is, I suppose: if we overnight converted to everyone to Objectivism/libertarianism, then things would probably be awesome, but in a world filled with complexities and people of all different beliefs, integrity levels, etc., it’s not going to work to take such a straightforward approach.

    And, definitely agree with you regarding that one “tiny” problem in The Fountainhead X_x. Rand’s views on sex in general are… rather screwy. I mean, OK, we can try to pass them off as just fetishes, but then she attempts to integrate them into her philosophical framework via some rhetorical trickery, and it falls down very hard.

  10. milkshake Says:

    The most puzzling thing to me is why otherwise intelligent people spent so much time on analyzing this Rand crap. About decade ago I got Altas in paperback from someone (it was a rather fat brick of a paperback) and I threw it a waste basket after first fifteen pages – that stuff was thoroughly unreadable, a poorly written, pompous and tedious treatise – and very dated too. I did not know who Rand was until couple years later I went in to a bookstore in Boca Raton, FL and saw Rand novels there on a very prominent display. I should mention that I lived under communism for 20 years and I found rather different kind of books to be extremely relevant. (For example if you want a dystopia far more realistic and chilling than 1984, I can recommend Kallocain from Karin Boye)

  11. Scott Says:

    Rick: I don’t think CEOs profiting from the bailout are right to take solace from Atlas Shrugged. Clearly they aren’t, any more than medieval inquisitors were right to congratulate themselves for their Christian mercy, or Mao was to feel secure in his Marxist principles as he tended to his harem in his compound. It’s hard to say which of the three ironies is the biggest or the most predictable. Any time you create an ideology of certainty—i.e., of an elect who already know the final truth about everything important, can be sure they know it, and can confidently denounce anyone who disagrees on any particular as deluded or evil—some people are going to want to count themselves part of that elect, and will perform whatever mental contortions it takes to convince themselves that they meet the moral requirements for entry, even if they couldn’t possibly be further from meeting them. This is a known failure mode for prophetic ideologies.

    I rewrote the first sentence to ward off possible confusion. You can now continue to the second and third sentences, if you like.

  12. Scott Says:

    Domenic: I know full well that most (all?) of what’s in the complement of Atlas Shrugged was intentionally put there by Rand, who set out to write an “abstract,” “romantic” novel. The problem arises when she then insists—emphatically—that she’s revealed the true nature of our world, that all her conclusions about RomanticLand apply equally well to earth. I feel like the guy who tentatively raises his hand at the end of a colloquium: “B-but … what happens when you incorporate babies into your model? Or evolution? Or history? Or personalities? Or rational uncertainty?” Except I sort of doubt I’d get the usual answer, that these things would be “interesting to address in future work.” Rather, I imagine the very asking of the question would reveal some sort of depravity on my part.

    (In Rand-logic, the basic inference rule is “A⇒B, and if you don’t see why then you’re a morally bankrupt looter.”)

  13. MattF Says:

    Sounds somewhat like the Harry Potter books… without the fantasies about flying.

  14. Scott Says:


    The most puzzling thing to me is why otherwise intelligent people spent so much time on analyzing this Rand crap.

    It might help to imagine a suburban teenage girl running off with a motorcycling, heroin-addicted gang member. Her choice seems like a puzzling one—until you find out that the stepfather she lived with had been an alcoholic abuser. (Note: this metaphor not approved by the Ayn Rand Institute.)

    In other words, if you find yourself imprisoned in the Soviet gulag or the American high school system, Rand’s ideas really will come to you as a liberation. She’s the one writer who actually seems interested in what you see all around you: the soft platitudes about tolerance, compassion, and equality used to justify the violence of the bullies; the jailers’ phony show of having the inmates “participate democratically”; the bureaucrats willing to inflict any amount of suffering so long as they can’t be blamed for it.

    It’s a shame Rand had to adopt so much of the moral certainty and imperiousness of the people she correctly despised. It seems to be a recurring problem for prophets…

  15. matt Says:

    Anthem inspired 2112, so at least one great work of art indirectly came out of her writings.

  16. milkshake Says:

    My suspicion is that Rand’s iron-clad elitism has attraction for smart kids struggling to fit in.

  17. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    In other words, if you find yourself imprisoned in the Soviet gulag or the American high school system, Rand’s ideas really will come to you as a liberation. She’s the one writer who actually seems interested in what you see all around you: the soft platitudes about tolerance, compassion, and equality used to justify the violence of the bullies; the jailers’ phony show of having the inmates “participate democratically”; the bureaucrats willing to inflict any amount of suffering so long as they can’t be blamed for it.

    Well, I was born in Communist Poland (although my family left when I was two) and I have heard about Soviet gulags. I have also seen the American high school system. In both cases, it is much more convenient to feel that you are a victim of the system, than to actually be one. That says a lot about the real appeal of Ayn Rand’s writings, and possibly something about her own true motives.


    I never read an Ayn Rand novel from beginning to end, but I did go through a similar libertarian phase in high school and college. Rand is so far over the top that it might have cured me of my ideology a little faster. The way that libertarianism reduced politics to axioms was very appealing. But at some point I realized that the axioms reach a contradiction. Libertarian orthodoxy has such a general notion of what a private company can be and do, that you could simply rename government as a private company.

    At first that sounds only like theoretical semantics, but eventually I found out it that it has actually been done. There is a chain of privately owned and operated towns called “Leisure World” that replace all municipal services and civics with a free-market contract. (They are essentially huge retirement centers.) The result, as you might expect, is that these towns can have much higher taxes and less individual rights than ordinary public cities.

    Anyway, after I noticed this contradiction, I gradually became less libertarian over time. Having moral principles is fine, but reducing politics to axioms is silly. Again, maybe if I had read Ayn Rand, I would have felt silly a little sooner.

  18. Douglas Knight Says:

    She’s the one writer who actually seems interested in what you see all around you: the soft platitudes…

    Wow! That is the first praise of Rand’s fiction that actually sounded positive to me.

    Of course, you said pretty much the same thing at the very beginning of the post, so maybe I was just more awake here. But maybe those few extra sentences spelling out what you meant will make the difference to other people who haven’t read a word of Rand.

  19. KaoriBlue Says:

    “Rand’s portrayal of an anti-mind, anti-reason cabal of collectivist rulers, who spout oleaginous platitudes about love and self-sacrifice even as they mercilessly repress any spark of individuality, happens to be extremely relevant to at least two cases I’m aware of…”

    I have to admit that I don’t really understand this point about high school… in most places (public and private) the standards are so low you can have an enormous amount of free time to pursue whatever interests you. Bored and feeling repressed? Go work at a university or a place like IBM after school/on the weekend.

    Isn’t the “Aynfatuation” episode in high school more about this being the first time that you really need to feign interest or respect for a decent number of people, clubs, activities like community service, etc? If these sorts of things make you feel particularly disgusted, I’m guessing Ayn Rand’s fantasy land will start to make a lot of sense.

  20. ScentOfViolets Says:

    As a few people have already implied, Rand is really writing about the Soviet Union(imho). In particular, this informs her personal vision of future technology, trains, minerals and mills, skyscrapers, etc. A George Jetson future iow, as imagined by someone whose tropes come from the beginning of the century as opposed to the middle.

    Similarly, the, um, personal characteristics she gave her heroes seem to be a reaction to the New Soviet Man. Perhaps this is interesting, perhaps not, but these idealizations share a lot not only with the Heinlein ideal, but also Homo Economicus, the Rational Actor of the ‘new economics’ re-emerging around that time (in another point of congruency, while Heinlein supposedly thought well of the family unit, he actually wrote very little about them, and indeed was himself childless.)

    And so it goes with your other points about history, ethnicity, and so on and so forth; she appears to be exorcising personal demons and projecting rather fiercely all the while. Iow, you can take the girl out the the SU, but you can’t take the SU out of the girl! That this was all she could perceive in the new country, poor woman, is perhaps not surprising(one wonders what personal baggage accrues to people simply by virtue of their nationality and recent history.)

    That it appeals to a great many oppressed persons, people who feel they been done wrong by fools, cretins, morons, is no surprise at all (think of how many times the Russian bureaucracy is lampooned in cinema and novel.) The tragedy of course, is that they are entirely correct. But the options for redress they are offered are few, and Rand just happens for many to be the best of a bad lot.

  21. Nandini Says:

    I’ve had a draft blog post sitting unfinished on this very subject for about six months now. Delete! Delete! You’ve said all there is to be said with more clarity and insight. I shall be content with a simple hyperlink to this.

  22. Aaron Luchko Says:

    I actually found the book to be an enjoyable read though came to roughly the same conclusions.

    Still I think there are two real benefits to reading it:

    1) It does suggest hard work, initiative, and success are good qualities that should be rewarded, which I do think is valid.

    2) It seems to me there’s a lot of people who base their philosophies on Ayn Rand (either directly or indirectly), it’s useful to understand where they’re coming from.

    As for criticism I think the biggest problem is ironically the same thing that doomed communism.

    Rand decides what the ideal moral code is than builds a philosophy around it, but in doing so she really forgets about human nature. Her philosophy might work well for a species who thinks that way but humans fundamentally don’t, the protagonists in her novel never have existed and probably never will. Rand herself had an affair in a manner that was blatantly contrary to the lessons taught in her novel!

  23. Aaron Luchko Says:

    Hmm, I may have misread the details of the affair so that example isn’t valid but I still contend that her system requires people that don’t exist.

  24. boo Says:

    Hey! I’m an Indian savage sitting cross-legged on my office chair, and I hate soybeans!

  25. Ian Durham Says:

    I have never read Ayn Rand and I doubt I ever will. Nonetheless, I have known several Rand-lovers over the years. One was a former student of mine who was one of the whiniest students I have ever taught. She felt the world owed her an A. The others are my wife’s cousins who like Rand so much their son’s first and middle names are Hank and Riordan respectively.

  26. milkshake Says:

    Aaron Luchko: So you really think communism was doomed by people being imperfect? (And if the people were just little less selfish the communism would turn into a paradise – or at least something like Pericles Athens, kibbutz and a hippie commune rolled in one?) The real agenda was all about civil war, the firing squads and gulags, torture chambers and secret police, about edicts from self-appointed committees, closed borders, confiscations, deportations and show trials from the very start. About peasants smashing windows of a palace and book burning parties. About eliminating the very possibility of independent ideas by the newspeak and doublethink. Did you read the Communist Manifesto from Marx and Engels? Did you read anything from and about Lenin? Or Trotsky? Or Che? or Mao? These were some seriously blood-curdling humanists. Communism failed to turn people into zombies but it was not for the lack of trying.

    Back to Rand: She was influential about a half century ago, and despite being so overrated and bombastic she served as a useful antidote – I think she deserves to be forgiven and forgotten.

  27. Daniel Says:

    Well, I’m a fan of Obama and his rational, liberal, centrist approach to government, so it may be slightly weird for me to defend Ayn Rand. But I think her book is really stating a philosophical ideal, one that I can see sharing, and that certainly, as you said, resonated with me in High School. Much of its application will of course involve compromises with the real world, and unfortunate realities involving irrational people. I know I compromise much, much more than Rand would, but nevertheless, it’s spring break, so I’ll take a minute to try to respond point by point.

    1, 2. If she was writing in the 50s, but she wanted to write a timeless novel, why would she talk about transistors (or any other current research)? She can’t know which things will survive and which won’t, so she tried to choose things that she figured would be respectable for the foreseeable future – architecture in Fountainhead, and physics, in the absolute broadest and least specific sense, in AS. If she’s trying to make a philosophical point about how we should live, she can leave interpretations specific to modern science to us. Think of how foreign the book would seem today if it talked about some great leap forward in vacuum tubes.

    3. She’s talking about how to achieve individual greatness. A family relationship in which you must serve others could be seen as a compromise with the real world. Ideally, of course, one’s kids would be individualistic, motivated, etc. I don’t think she believes that everybody can turn out like this, but since her book is about a theoretical utopia, and a direction she wants people to strive in, this is understandable.

    4. Literary license. I don’t think she believes that all rational people are beautiful and all irrational people are ugly. Look back at a photo of her, or Alan Greenspan in those amazing glasses, for evidence.

    5. I never thought, while reading the book, that she was saying that Galt and Roark are ordinary mortals. She’s put them up as philosophical ideals. It seems unlikely that she believes that everybody can be exactly like them. I always read this as her desire for people to integrate this philosophy with their own personalities – Roark’s love of great structures and architecture, Galt’s inventive mind, Halley’s passion for music, Scott’s fascination with the limits of computation in the physical world, etc. You can fill in the background from your own life.

    6, and 7, are to me somewhat a consequence of the fact that these characters are not really ordinary mortals. They are incarnations of Objectivism, and as such shouldn’t have philosophical disagreements. Uncertainty is a natural consequence of the real world. I don’t see why this precludes exploration in real life. If Rearden metal is superior to steel in an objective fashion, then it should be treated as such, in the same fashion as steel to iron or bronze. I am not a fan of her idea that this means people should objectively agree about music, though. I agree that she’s left something out here, though it was clearly intentional and I vaguely see why.

    8. Again, timelessness. She wants to capture philosophy, not specifics – the philosophy of Toohey is ‘evil’ when it leads to things like the Soviet Union.

    9. Part of this is addressed, somewhat indirectly and mildly – when someone takes your perfect work/expression of your individualism and maligns it for evil, you do what Roark did at the end of The Fountainhead. In the ideal, however, you should be able to create wondrous things without worrying about how evil people will use them. Stadler should serve as an example here – he sold out, and used his scientific genius to advance evil, and it ultimately destroyed him.

    10. Yeah it’s the 40s, in America. Only one race got a good education at the time – I wouldn’t read too much into this.

  28. todd. Says:

    The question that worries me most here is, “Where did you guys go to high school?” It sounds like a school district that I will need to avoid.

  29. Aaron Luchko Says:


    I have to admit that I haven’t read Marx or anything but I wasn’t talking about communism from USSR or any other nation. I was talking about the idealized utopian versions that they talked about (like the idealized utopian vision that Rand showed).

    My point was that even with idealists and nice fluffy non-totalitarians communism doesn’t work because people don’t operate that way. They are greedy, they respond positively to incentives a way communists think they shouldn’t, they have a whole lot of characteristics that communists don’t like because it breaks their system.

    Then I argued that Rand made a different, but similarly flawed sets of assumptions, that doomed her system as well.

    Honestly you’re responding to points I never made and ascribing characteristics that have nothing to do with me. I get the feeling you just wanted to rant at someone and I seemed the easiest candidate to twist into what you wanted to rant at.

  30. milkshake Says:

    Communist manifesto from Marx and Engels has it all – spelled out in a plain language and very much to the point (the dictum is more elegant than Mein Kampf because the authors were college-educated). Its short, its online – enjoy.

  31. D. Eppstein Says:

    I did read Engels in college. There was nothing about police states in there, only compassion for workers who had been very badly treated by the Galts of their time. But it’s easy to forget about all that in the wake of Lenin’s atrocities and those of his heirs.

  32. John Sidles Says:

    Yet another crucial missing ingredient: evolutionary biology (otherwise known as “humanity’s deep history”).

    I have to give Jane Goodall immense credit for seeing, and understanding, and publicly saying what Ayn Rand and her contemporaries either could not see, or did not understand, or dared not say: humans are not the only sapients on this planet.

    Best remedy: a month as an ape-watching docent at the zoo. Next best: Frans de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics. Third best: attend any large faculty meeting or political convention!

    As for the private lives and political/sexual machinations of Rand’s circle … well … pretty much any chimpanzee would understood all the drama perfectly well.

  33. Blake Stacey Says:

    In the universe of Atlas, physical appearance is destiny—always, without exception, from John Galt down to the last minor villain.

    This also holds in the universe of Brave New World, though not, I think, for the same reasons.

  34. Scott Says:

    Libertarian orthodoxy has such a general notion of what a private company can be and do, that you could simply rename government as a private company.

    It’s funny, Greg—I came up with essentially the same argument against libertarian orthodoxy, though I didn’t phrase it as elegantly. My argument was: if the gummint bothers you so much, then just assume that when you were born, you implicitly signed a contract with it (thought of as some private entity) to be bound by its terms. So far, I guess I was beaten to the punch by Locke. 🙂 But this view of government has an interesting consequence, which I might not have guessed otherwise: that the one really fundamental right, which no government should ever take away, is that of renouncing your implicit contract and moving to a different country. The more I thought about this consequence, the more sense it made: when you consider the worst regimes in history—Nazi Germany, the USSR, North Korea, etc.—every one would’ve been (or in North Korea’s case, would be) much less bad if they’d just let their victims pack up and go.

    So in summary, the day the US takes away my right to move to another country, I’ll be as outraged as John Galt giving a keynote speech to the Libertarian Party convention. But until then, my Lockean contract with the US government stands.

  35. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    My argument was: if the gummint bothers you so much, just assume that when you were born, you implicitly signed a contract with your government (thought of as some private entity) to be bound by its terms.

    Well, my own political corollary was not necessarily that we are all bound by a hypothetical birth contract to the government. (Or in my case, a less hypothetical naturalization contract.) My disillusionment did not lead to a positive endorsement of any particular government power. Rather, I concluded that certain dogmatic strains of libertarianism are ultimately contradictory or even outright hypocritical. The logical conclusion is to grant powers to private companies that would be denounced as coercive if they were government powers.

    A good example of this is libertarian privacy objections to traffic cameras. Now, privacy from hidden cameras is a legitimate concern. But the privacy protections are so selective that typically a criminal suspect has been videotaped at dozens of stores, banks, gas stations, and ATM machines before reaching that nefarious traffic camera.

    That the one really fundamental right, which no government should ever take away, is that of renouncing your implicit contract and moving to a different country.

    I don’t think that it’s quite that simple if the citizen in question happens to be Roman Polanski. Really I don’t think that there is any simple formulation of fundamental rights, even though I believe in the concept of fundamental rights.

    (Also, although I do not claim it as a fundamental right, I hope that this post is not held for moderation. Has a flag been set for me by accident?)

  36. Scott Says:

    Has a flag been set for me by accident?

    I assure you it hasn’t. Alas, the price of keeping out the likes of Martin Musatov (who at the height of his “career” was submitting dozens of P=NP rants per day) is that a large fraction of legitimate comments are getting held up in the queue. As overlord and monarch of this comments section, I hold the awesome responsibility of balancing liberty with security. Let us pray that I do so with a wisdom and efficacy exceeding our last president’s.

  37. Bram Cohen Says:

    Was Ayn Rand unfamiliar with bronchitis and emphysema, or were those afflictions which only happened to collectivist lungs?

    She also seems totally unfamiliar with (non-governmental) pointy-haired bosses. Dilbert is a fairly succinct and damning counter to her, umm, philosophy.

  38. Job Says:

    Oh no, i downloaded this book into my (brand new) Kindle as a trial and now i can’t remove it.

  39. Job Says:

    It wasn’t “Atlas” that i downloaded, it was “Anthem”.

    Either way, it’s not my type of book, and i usually don’t care for plots that take place in a far off future. Even science fiction in general i have a low threshold for.

  40. Job Says:

    It shows right on the home screen. Just my luck i was going to show off my new Kindle at work tomorrow and this happens.

    Now everyone will think i read Ayn Rand. I downloaded Walden by Thoreau as well, just to offset, but it’s a close call, i may not be able to carry out the show-off. Luckily it shows right at the top, so i can always cover it with some tape, or just put my finger over it. I’ll put my left thumb over the upper portion of the screen, it’s a natural place to put the thumb, i’m probably better off putting my thumb there anyway it’s confortable. And i can say that i’m using it to avoid the glare. Cool.

  41. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    As overlord and monarch of this comments section, I hold the awesome responsibility of balancing liberty with security. Let us pray that I do so with a wisdom and efficacy exceeding our last president’s.

    Right, no waterboarding please.

  42. Domenic Denicola Says:

    Anthem is pretty bad; don’t get turned off to Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead (or for that matter We the Living) by it.

  43. milkshake Says:

    Maybe I should not have made comments about “how can any intelligent person take Rand seriously” – because when I was in senior high I got hold of “Think and Grow Rich” from Napoleon Hill and it made me completely awestruck. (We did not have any self-help positive-thinking personal-growth books back then under communism). Eventually I calmed down and decided that underachievers have less to be anxious about.

  44. ScentOfViolets Says:

    I’d like to suggest a fact #11 to put into the complement, as well as yet another possible explanation for Why They Read Rand.

    You touched on this briefly with your point about the family, but I think this can be further ramified: not only are family relationships strained, to say the least, but there is no charity, no humility, no forgiveness, no acceptance, nothing of what we in the West would call the higher virtues. Essentially, what Rand offers is a big ‘ol plate of vindictiveness and a truly warped revenge fantasy. I don’t know how this plays out in other parts of the world, but here in the good ‘ol US of A, we’ve made payback into something of a national fetish. The American Way. Thus, anyone who thinks they’ve been Wronged (the capitals, btw, are quite deliberate) can feast on a somewhat older, though just as immature, tale of “They’ll be sorry when I’m gone”, surely the brief fantasy of every three- or four-year-old who thinks about running away, or possibly dying, to make their parents feel sorry for the way they’ve been treating their child.

    Well, the sad fact is, large numbers people have very legitimate grievances concerning the unfair way they’ve been treated in so many instances. Grievances that will never be redressed. Worse, the people who have treated them so shabbily will never acknowledge this, or even get their comeuppance. Quite the contrary, usually. They live long and prosper.

    I don’t think it too much hyperbole to say that one of the problems we have with the national psyche is that we have a rather large percentage of the population that has been eaten up from within by resentment. Their gripes, while quite real, have made them into something less than what they would otherwise be. The Russian in the parable who upon being granted a boon wishes misfortune upon his neighbor. That is the sort cupidity that Rand plays upon; not lust for real wealth, but a wealth of revenge. Imho.

  45. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    A thought this morning:

    Since Scott describes Rand as a teen rite of passage, did Rand herself have a teen rite of passage? Her Wikipedia biography suggests that it was Nietzsche.

  46. hk Says:

    I can tell you that Rand is totally irrelevant in the European philosophical discourse, being considered entirely too trivial and, well, dumb, for any serious consideration. While I think there’s plenty dumb “philosophical” writers around, none of them are quite so obviously incompetent (but many are rather good only on trying to obfuscate their lack of ideas).

    Rand appears to be naive even when compared to 17th century writers, so her status in the USA is a bit of a puzzle to anyone outside, I think.

  47. Scott Says:

    ScentOfViolets: The whole point of Rand’s philosophy is to create an ethical system with no unearned charity or forgiveness, just trade and justice. So it’s not surprising that in her fiction, the “higher” virtues are only exhibited by evil characters. In my list, I tried to confine myself to aspects of human existence that even Rand and her supporters would presumably have to admit are important, yet that are ignored or denigrated in her fiction.

  48. Scott Says:

    hk: By telling me about how the philosophically-sophisticated Europeans turn up their noses at Rand, are you trying to get me to like her again? 😉

  49. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    Part of the reason, I suspect, for the USA/Europe split on Ayn Rand is that Europe has experienced Communism, and has a more nuanced view than the USA, hence Rand’s anticommunism seems naive to Europeans. Second, that in the USA, Libertarianism is historically associated with the Right, whereas in Europe, Libertarianism is historically associated with the Left. Third, that Rand’s daring (in USA) rejection of sexual mores is ho-hum in Europe. Fourth, that Rand’s refusal to recognize that there is such a thing as pollution (as a negative side-effect of Industry) is offensive the the Green movement.

  50. Michael Mitzenmacher Says:

    Funnily enough, I just ran across this quote:

    — There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

  51. Jack Rawlinson Says:

    Rand is pretty much only appreciated by Americans, and mainly by young American males. I have always found this both unsurprising and very, very amusing.

  52. ScentOfViolets Says:

    Well, Scott, I certainly don’t want to get into a debate about the finer distinctions between ‘justice’ and ‘retribution’! “Go, and sin no more” seems to me an excellent prescription for many injustices that could be viewed in terms of positive and negative market outcomes, but that’s a rather large can of worms to open on top of poor Ayn. Would a Randite concede there are any positive emotions worth trading off on at all?

  53. ScentOfViolets Says:

    Well, Jack, as I said, I think there’s a revenge fantasy component to it that maybe outsiders(outside the U.S. that is) just don’t get. It might be interesting to list the nationalities where the Dirty Harry/Death Wish personas are viewed positively and see if this correlates with any anecdotal outbreaks of objectivism.

    Is there a popular work like ‘Atlas Shrugged’ where the hero after being victimized makes his tormentors sorry by doing good deeds for them and forgiving them? That seems to be another popular story amongst the three-to-twenty-three set.

    Oops. Just realized, and no offense intended.

  54. William Gasarch Says:

    A few years ago I took a shortcut: I read the CLIFF NOTES
    to Atlas Shrugged. Even that was over 200 pages.
    It was written by a Randian, but thats okay since I read it to
    see what she was trying to say without having to read 400-page
    speeches. I really feel I didn’t miss anything.

    Anyway, I agree with everything Scott says and will borrow his
    comments and pass them off as my own the next time
    I am discussin Atlas Shrugged with someone. Hope they are not blog readers.

  55. Cody Says:

    If Rand’s aim was “…an ethical system with no unearned charity or forgiveness, just trade and justice”, would that qualify as a pure meritocracy? In which case, is she overlooking the more base reasons underlying why people seek out social, political and economic rewards in the first place? (Which I suppose fits with everything else that has been said about the absence of familial themes and higher virtues.)

    Also, to anyone who adopts this view of pure meritocracy: would you just outright reject the notion that the environment one is born into and raised in is an enormous influence on one’s success? Cause I tend to think once you are on top, it becomes very difficult for others to compete effectively (i.e., the rich get richer). I suppose alternatively you could argue that natural unfairness is acceptable.

    ScentOfViolets, I feel pessimistic for saying this but I really liked your post, which is slightly strange because I don’t typically feel pessimistic.

  56. Cody Says:

    Oh, and I meant post #44; ScentOfViolets, I agree we American’s have a penchant for revenge, which seems really weird considering we typically have it pretty easy. Can you (or anyone else) think of any reason why?

  57. John Sidles Says:

    ScentOfViolets asks: Is there a popular work like ‘Atlas Shrugged’ where the hero after being victimized makes his tormentors sorry by doing good deeds for them and forgiving them?

    That is a wonderful question, and dozens of interesting and important examples spring to mind. In fiction, of course, Huckleberry Finn provides a first-rate example.

    Real life provides meatier examples even than fiction … and more often than not, these examples are extraordinarily controversial. Without wishing to start (multiple) flame wars, perhaps this is how Craig Venter conceives his relations with the NIH? Or how the architects of the Marshall Plan conceived their post-war work?

    The Wikipedia Page on “Conflict Transformation” provides a fine entry into this (arguably) most important of all human endeavors. IMHO, it is well to “fondly hope and fervently pray” that this and (many) similar global-scale transformative enterprises find a good measure of success … because (as we all appreciate) too many of the plausible futures for our planet are too dismal to bear contemplation.

    Thank you, ScentOfViolets, for asking a question that illuminates the irrelevance of circumscribed dogmas (like Rand’s) to the great theater of our century.

  58. Scott Says:

    Cody: Given their history, I don’t find it surprising that Americans admire the cowboy, the sheriff, the superhero–the person who takes justice into his own hands, who doesn’t accept the rule of bullies as given but wants to fight the bullies, avenge the underdog, fix the world.

    In healthy doses, I think this ideal contributed to America becoming the greatest economic, military, and scientific juggernaut the world has ever known.

    In more-than-healthy doses, it leads to George W. Bush.

  59. Jack in Danville Says:

    “…published in 1943. At such a time, how could Rand possibly imagine the ultimate human evil to be a left-wing newspaper critic?”

    Published in 1944, how could Hayek possibly write The Road to Serfdom?

    If everyone were overwhelmed by the most obvious events occuring in their time, no one would have written anything worthy of criticism.

  60. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Given their history, I don’t find it surprising that Americans admire the cowboy, the sheriff, the superhero–the person who takes justice into his own hands, who doesn’t accept the rule of bullies as given but wants to fight the bullies, avenge the underdog, fix the world.

    If it takes an American to understand such a hero, it’s amazing that anyone ever read Les Miserables, except maybe in American English translation.

    No, something else is going on. Unlike Les Miserables, Atlas Shrugged is tailored to American political issues such as welfare and taxes. Of course, these are also issues in European countries, but they are not usually argued there in such a bombastic form. It’s not nearly as useful to argue in France that a public pension is a morally corrupt sop to mediocrities. In other ways as well, the book is very American. To begin with, it’s set in America and the characters have American names. All else being equal, people would rather read about their own kind.

    In healthy doses, I think this ideal contributed to America becoming the greatest economic, military, and scientific juggernaut the world has ever known.

    Certainly individual freedom contributed to American economic success, and so did other factors such as business transparency and even simply economy of scale. But I don’t know that the ideal of individual heroism made any significant difference, although obviously many Americans would say that it did.

    For instance, the Wright Brothers certainly saw themselves as genius heroes. They were real John Galts. As a result, they sued every other American who built an airplane for patent infringement. They were one reason that French aviation surpassed American aviation as early as 1910, and didn’t change places back until the 1920s.

  61. Rahul Says:

    I could never take Rand seriously, for the simple reason that she is completely devoid of a sense of humor.

  62. Michael Nielsen Says:

    That’s some intestinal fortitude you have there, Scott. I gave up after about 20 pages.

  63. John Sidles Says:

    It was fun to encounter, on the March 21 Small Wars Journal web site, Major Michael Few’s essay “Conflict Resolution in Small Wars”. The essay begins with a tribute to John Nash:

    John Nash’s arbitration for non-cooperative games explains how to negotiate a fair settlement of utility in the midst of irreconcilable differences … The purpose of this paper is to explore non-kinetic, non-military indirect methods of conflict resolution.

    Major Fews’ short essay covers many of the same issues as Ayn Rand’s book, Scott’s post, and the comments on this thread … and IMHO the essay beats all three by a pretty comfortable margin, when it comes to provocative thinking.

    By the way, I am not designating Maj. Few’s essay as any kind of final word in philosophical analysis (any more than I would designate Rand’s writing as any kind of final word in philosophical analysis).

    My point is instead that there are people out there who are exploring—far more creatively, far more seriously, and far more practically than the Randians—some of the sobering realities of modern conflict resolution in relation to the enduring ideals of liberty.

  64. Elliot Temple Says:

    I don’t like any of the sex parts of Rand’s novels either. But that isn’t a *rape* scene in Fountainhead. She wants to have sex. Roark knows that she wants to have sex. It’s voluntary, even if kinky.

  65. ScentOfViolets Says:

    John, thanks for the heads up, I’ll look at that article. The book I was thinking of – after I typed it – was immediately obvious. A well-known volume whose latter part is the retelling of the life of a somewhat famous rabbi almost as popular as the Beatles 🙂

    Greg, may I suggest that the thing that is going on in America that makes Rand appealing to so many is a diffuse, but very deep and abiding sense of resentment? I don’t like to say this, but these days it’s almost a part of the national character. It’s what the hoodoo men on AM radio preach out in the hinterlands.

    Think of it this way: if the Singularity is just the Rapture for the nerds, then the tenets of Objectivism are for the nerds what that sense of old-time persecution is for the fundamentalists. I may be a bit parochial, but to borrow the example of Les Miserable, the French don’t seem to be known as people who harbor grudges. And that is why Rand is popular here in a way that she is not elsewhere.

  66. Patrick Cahalan Says:

    @ Jack

    > Rand is pretty much only appreciated by Americans, and
    > mainly by young American males. I have always found
    > this both unsurprising and very, very amusing.

    That, dear sir, is perhaps all that needs to be said about Rand.

  67. John Sidles Says:

    Selfishness-as-virtue is an axiom of America’s advertising culture, and IMHO, Ayn Rand’s popularity in America is best understood as a artifact of this marketing.

    For example, Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness is one of her most celebrated works. We can ask, “Celebrated by whom?” Celebrated by selfish people, obviously … and less obviously, celebrated by those who profit from the selfish behavior of others.

    Under what circumstances can I profit from the selfish behavior of others? There are surprisingly many such circumstances … selling ozone-destroying air-conditioning coolants … selling energy in the form of carbon fuels … selling Ponzi-scheme financial instruments to everyone.

    These actions rightly incur opprobrium. But there are at many classes of people who are not much bothered by opprobrium, including teenagers, narcissists, free-market economists, extreme libertarians, and sociopaths. It is unsurprising that Rand’s work finds enduring popularity among these social groups.

    In medicine we are very concerned to diagnose empathic deficits, which occur both in patients and in medical students. A thought-provoking entry into a large literature is The autism-spectrum quotient (AQ): evidence from Asperger syndrome/high-functioning autism, males and females, scientists and mathematicians


  68. Stas Says:

    … selling ozone-destroying air-conditioning coolants … selling energy in the form of carbon fuels …
    Tragedy of the commons is not unique for America, it’s a fundamental issue of any society. As for empathy, I find it rather portrayed in a silly manner and overexploited in the U.S. ads. Aflac ads is probably the most extreme example of this 😉

  69. John Sidles Says:

    Stas Says: As for empathy, I find it rather portrayed in a silly manner and overexploited in the U.S. ads

    That is absolutely true! And yet, there are mighty few subjects that are as deep, as fascinating, as relatively unexplored, and as thoroughly entangled with multiple mathematical, scientific and artistic enterprises, as human empathy.

  70. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Greg, may I suggest that the thing that is going on in America that makes Rand appealing to so many is a diffuse, but very deep and abiding sense of resentment?

    In my view, the direct motivation is not resentment but axioms. So-called “objectivism”, and similarly orthodox libertarianism, reduce politics to a compelling set of axioms. Those axioms indeed seem to be more compelling in the United States than in Europe, and not just because Rand illustrated them in an American setting. It is true that the United States is largely run by businessmen, somewhat more so than Europe, and that private enterprise is a relatively axiomatic type of human activity.

    I think that simple resentment is a universal human condition rather than especially American. So are self-serving world views, which is of course what Stephen Colbert had in mind. But since Scott correctly described Rand as a teen rite of passage, it’s also true that many bright teenagers are attracted to revelatory axioms. The subtexts of resentment and self-glorification of talent are icing on the cake. (Yes, some people would say that they are the cake under the icing, but I think that that’s ungenerous.)

  71. Chett Mitchell Says:

    Your points 5 and 6, and John Sidle’s post, brought to mind Larry Niven’s SF novel “Protector”. At one point in the story one super-intelligent being murders another, who sees it coming but doesn’t object. In an aside Niven explains “…any sufficiently intelligent being has no free will”. This idea troubled me at the time, but for reasons that did not become clear to me until much later.

    Niven’s idea makes sense if you make the following assumptions: (1) an intelligent being has goals that are all consistent and are strictly ordered; (2) in every situation there is exactly one optimal plan of action for realizing a goal; and (3) there is always totally clear and completely sufficient information available about the consequences of a given choice.

    Having lived many years since I read Niven’s book, I sadly admit that (1) is not true for me. I’m glad that (2) isn’t true for me (how else could I go back to grad school and get my PhD almost 20 years after dropping out?). At this point I’m convinced that (3) is true for anybody I know.

    SF writers (and “visionaries” like Rand) sometimes fetishize rationality, forgetting that those sharp, powerful tools have to be applied by complex, ambivalent agents living in a silly-putty world.

  72. Chett Mitchell Says:

    Oops! The sentence should read:

    “At this point I’m convinced that (3) *isn’t* true for anyone I know.”


  73. Patrick Says:

    I’m actually reading it right now, and she(or at least Dagny & Rearden) does show a lot of interest in this highly improbable train that can run on electricity extracted from air.

    So I guess that is an interest in new technologies.

    But I think your 9th point is my biggest sticking point. It seems that the dominant features of our time involve people who are very efficient at making a profit with a complete disregard for law and ethics, which contrasts highly with her ethical industrialists.

    I feel like the book is populated by Strawmen, but that they were made of straw didn’t make Rand’s task quite easy enough, so Rand had to set them on fire.

    One other point of confusion, is this. I’m at the point where the looters are making a hefty profit because they changed the law such that they can legally acquire Rearden metal at a discount. She villianizes these looters, but at the same time, they are profitable. At times she implies that profit is the highest virtue(or at least that the most despicable claim that one can make is to claim that you have never made a profit.). So I have a hard time condemning these profitable and law abiding looters by her standards.

  74. RM Says:

    Patrick (#73): in Rand’s view, the looters get money but don’t make a Profit. The highest goal is to produce wealth, to take what you have and by the action of your mind add value to it. This is, to her, genuine Profit. Ideally, money would symbolize this abstract Value that you have created, in that others would recognize and appreciate your achievement and give you money for it (which is really a stand-in for the Value that they produce). However, she makes it clear that the system is broken, so that money can be “earned” by means other than producing Value. This enables the villains to be rich as far as accountants are concerned, but their wealth is fake; they are morally bankrupt.

    This is in fact what she’s trying to point out by having rich villains, by having Jim boast that he is better at making money than Dagny, by having the heroes willing to take a “pay cut” to go on strike and live in relative meagerness and simplicity in the Gulch rather than rule as tycoons in the looters’ world.

  75. RM Says:

    I think most of Scott’s points are quite apt (especially 6: I have to wonder how Rand would have taken to complexity theory. Would she insist that P=NP because it would be unthinkable that so many important problems could not be swiftly conquered by the rational mind?). Nevertheless, I rather enjoyed Atlas Shrugged and have to admire what Rand accomplished in novelizing her grand philosophy of life. How many other works are half as successful at such an ambitious endeavor? I don’t have to be an Objectivist to admire the project and the extent to which it succeeded.

    Of course there are all sorts of holes in her book and her philosophy, but I’ve never encountered a philosophy that’s bulletproof. At least she has the chutzpah to try. She is right about several things, wrong about many others, and the whole mix makes for an interesting playground. I would want my kids to read it once they developed the critical thinking abilities to engage the arguments without blind acceptance or dismissal.

  76. Blake Stacey Says:

    I’m actually reading it right now, and she(or at least Dagny & Rearden) does show a lot of interest in this highly improbable train that can run on electricity extracted from air.

    Ah! I just knew the Feynman ratchet would revolutionize the transportation industry!

  77. Patrick Says:

    RM(#74): That makes sense, thanks for the clarification.

    Is that value-added minus value-subtracted? Value-net, if you will? By this I mean, If I force Rearden to sell me 500 tons of Metal at a loss(- 500 Rand Value), but I use it to build some awesome and profitable golf clubs(+ 600 Rand Value) am I a looter or an industrialist?

    Decoupling net-value from money almost makes it sound like utility theory. But perhaps I get labeled as a Looter regardless of net-value, because forcing a deal at a loss breaks some sort of Categorical Imperative, which would be squarely Kantian.

    Moreover, how do we decide to equate money and Rand Value without looking at the dollar value? If Rand decides building bridges is more important than golf clubs despite the valuation, then we’re talking about an ethics that looks almost Nicomachean.

    I guess I wouldn’t be surprised if Objectivism has much in common with utility theory, insofar as many of the early economic theorist were Utilitarians.

  78. Abel Says:

    Well, first I have to say that I agree with the political part of the book more than with, say, 95-99% of what can be found out there. I quite enjoyed it, but mostly as a rant against thing I mostly dislike, not as a serious thing, although I think she makes some good points at some parts of the book.

    That said,

    a) It is quite clear to me that Ayn Rand does not really know about science, an does not really care about it ( Of course, many philosophers do care even less). What she seems to understand as science is the the part of logic that is usually covered by people who do philosophy, and that in some way, all sort of cool things that make her able to show everyone how cool her philosophy is are derived from that. Science is also a good thing, as it allows her to tell everyone to shut up about their particular likings and listen to her. By the way, the part about scientific aesthetic principles seems to me to be something that she retained from her Soviet origins.

    b) I think it is underestimated how much of the book is just a rationalization of Ayn Rand’s lifestyle. Especially, all the parts about love seem to me just the justification she gives for sleeping with whoever she wants.

    c) It did not have any powerful effect on me, most likely because I had already read some reviews like this one (including the Rothbard one). And I guess the last thing one should do with a book that makes people who take it seriously turn into self-righteous assholes is, well, take it seriously. Maybe it was that The Lord of The Rings had already changed my life when I was 11, too :P.

    d) I do not think “serious” philosophers pay that much attention to Ayn Rand anywhere in the world, including America. The reason I find for that is that the easy to mock things from “serious” philosophers and the easy to mock things from Ayn Rand says tend to be completely opposite to each other.

    And regarding “normal” people, well, Europe is a very diverse place, but the reason for the lack of popularity of Ayn Rand’s book in the parts that I know well is basically that people do not know that the books exist in the first place. As globalization goes on, more and more normal people are getting to know them, and the range of reactions is pretty much the same as in America. Some people like them, some do not, and the sort of people who like them is more or less the same as in America.

    e) The Fountainhead is the only book/movie pair I know in which I prefer the movie. Maybe because I read the book after reading Atlas Shrugged, and in that case is completely redundant. I do not think it is a rape, though, it is just that Ayn Rand probably liked to fantasize about being “raped”.

    f) The creator of Dilbert is libertarian. Of course, that does not mean that some parts could not be interpreted as arguments about libertarianism, but I doubt they are intended to be that.

    g) I do not think there is anything special with a book from the 40s or 50s written by a white person having only white characters. But, I actually imagined some of the secondary characters to be black when I was reading the book, and I do not think (I do not it remember really well, as it was about two years ago) the race of most secondary characters is explicitly stated anywhere.

    Sorry for the long reply, but it seems that speaking about Ayn Rand makes people inherit her prodigious conciseness ability.

  79. Patrick Says:

    I’ve been reading a little further and I’ve come to the opinion that it is a more enjoyable read if treated more like a cross between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and 1984.

  80. RM Says:

    Patrick (#77): If by “force” you mean “threaten to initiate the use of force” (ie “sell at this price or I’ll shoot you/jail you/confiscate your property/etc.”) then you’re Dr. Stadler; the fact that you have a great mind capable of creating Value doesn’t excuse your sin or willfully engaging in theft (in fact it makes your sin all the more tragic).

    If you just mean that you will only buy the metal at a price that forces Rearden to lose money on the deal, that’s fine. We are to assume that Rearden is rational and therefore won’t accept the deal unless it is to his benefit in some way (perhaps it better advances his values to enable the production of your +5 axiomatic looter-bane golf clubs than to have that extra cash).

    It’s probably also worth noting that Galt endorses the gold standard, which is one reason paper fiat money isn’t the same as what Money “should be” (and supposedly is in the Gulch).

  81. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I’m at the point where the looters are making a hefty profit because they changed the law such that they can legally acquire Rearden metal at a discount. She [vilifies] these looters, but at the same time, they are profitable.

    This looks like a huge weakness in Rand’s attempt to reduce all of economics to moral axioms. Who, exactly, is a wealth-creator and who is a looter or moocher? Rand has the unshakeable conviction of someone with a weak case that the difference is obvious.

    Yes, her book already shows signs of the problem. But let’s also look at reality. In the actual American history of the airplane, John Galt sued Hank Rearden for patent infringement. So maybe you could say that the John Galt wasn’t really John Galt but actually a moocher; or that the Hank Rearden wasn’t really Hank Rearden but actually a looter. Or you could argue that one or both of them fell from grace.

    Anyway the real names were the Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtiss. The Wright brothers invented/discovered three-axis flight control and built the first convincing airplane. They did not build the first airplane by any rigorous argument, but an airplane that doesn’t bank doesn’t fly well enough to be convincing. However, they were never able to build useful airplanes. That required more inventions and better engineering, but the Wright brothers did not like to collaborate with outsiders. Instead, they patented three-axis flight control, and by extension, patented working airplanes in general. In a crucial court decision, the patent was interpreted to mean that instead of just a patent for wing-warping, which was their specific method of flight control.

    Meanwhile Glenn Curtiss was in many ways a better engineer than the Wright Brothers and a better manager and businessman, even though he wasn’t first. He was one of the people who replaced wing-warping with ailerons, and he made other important improvements as well. His company did eventually make truly useful and marketable airplanes, although other companies in France did this even sooner. He was one of the main targets of the Wright Brothers’ lawsuits. Indeed the Wright Brothers largely won in the history books. Many historical narratives don’t mention Curtiss at all, while some cast him as one of the villains. But he truly did create value.

  82. Stephanie Says:

    Thanks for all these insights and discussion. My twopence: Not only are there no families in Rand, I can’t figure out how there can be any _teachers_ in her utopia. I couldn’t find any way that being a teacher could be a morally acceptable life, if one adheres to her principles. All her people just already know everything – even Roark’s mentor doesn’t actually do any teaching, just sort of inspires by example.

  83. Eric Baum Says:

    I have to agree with most of your comments, but the elephant in the room that your review conspicuously ignores, and which your criticisms just make all the more impressive, is, why, in the face of all these flaws, is this book going to sell something like half a million copies this year, 52 years after it was first published? The answer is, the book is extremely perceptive in important ways, not only historically and at the time it was published, but predictively. Clearly one of the most important books of the 20th century and just as relevant in the 21st. You write a book that sells half a million copies 52 years later, then criticize.

  84. Scott Says:

    Eric: Out of curiosity, would you make the same argument about the Bible? Or the works of Marx and Freud, which I’m guessing also still sell reasonably well (if not as well as Atlas)?

  85. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    It’s the Elvis Presley argument: 50 million fans can’t be wrong. My wife’s answer to that (in the case of Elvis) was: Oh, yes they can!

    Another point that I often like to make: A topic can be important or interesting for positive reasons, like Mozart, or for negative reasons, like a sprained ankle. I won’t pass judgment on Atlas Shrugged, since I haven’t read it, but “Objectivism” is on balance negatively interesting.

  86. John Sidles Says:

    Eric Baum Says: Why is [Atlas Shrugged] going to sell something like half a million copies this year?

    Eric, that sales number seems inflated to me. My Fermi estimate was that a book like Atlas Shrugged could sustain (over the long haul) sales of 50K-100K per year.

    If the 500K figure is correct, that would mean Atlas Shrugged sells even more copies than Mrs. Frisbie and the Rats of NIMH … despite the fact that almost everyone who has read both books regards the latter as being immensely more entertaining *and* philosophically deeper to boot!

    Just ask the folks who run the NIH’s on-campus bookstore, where Frisbie perenially outsells Atlas 100-1! 🙂

  87. Eric Baum Says:

    Scott, If you don’t think everything I wrote applies to the Bible, I question your judgment. But all the works you mention have had such powerful messages, they have contributed strongly to the collective consciousness. Hopefully we are getting beyond Marx and Freud, but Ayn Rand is still going strong.

    And considering its a gazillion pages and has all the flaws you mention, an amazingly high fraction of the people who buy Atlas actually read it.

  88. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    an amazingly high fraction of the people who buy Atlas actually read it

    Really? What fraction is it and what fraction would it have been for an ordinary very long book?

  89. Ted Diesel Says:


    As a student who thinks Ayn Rand’s ideas merit serious attention, I applaud your decision to read some of her most important works and open up this discussion. I am disappointed with some of the stands you take here, and I may address some of them directly, but I think you deserve praise at least at this basic level.

    Diving into your criticisms of Atlas could be helpful, but what I’d really like to see here is a dialogue concentrating on areas of your (and your readership’s) professional expertise. Things started moving in that direction when I commented on your blog a few times last summer. Unfortunately, I cannot really represent the Objectivist side in that kind of conversation. While I’ve taken some graduate courses in theoretical computer science, I am very hesitant to say what an Objectivist perspective might bring to that field. Subjects that could lead to much meatier discussion are (1) quantum mechanics and (2) free will (which I noticed you’ve lectured about), but my doctoral studies are neither in physics nor philosophy. It’s possible that some Objectivists with Ph.D.’s in physics would be willing take part; I’ll try to let a few appropriate people know about this thread.

  90. Jon Says:

    And considering its a gazillion pages and has all the flaws you mention, an amazingly high fraction of the people who buy Atlas actually read it.

    I think this is a pertinent comparison between Atlas and the Bible:

    Everyone who owns a copy claims to have read it.

  91. John Sidles Says:

    The web site “” summarizes Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism—in her own words—as the aggregate of just four principles:

    (1) “Reality exists as an objective absolute.” (2) “Reason is man’s only means of perceiving reality.” (3) “Man—every man—is an end in himself.” (4) “The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism.”

    Yet with respect, from a strictly scientific point of view, aren’t all four principles just plain wrong-on-the-facts? Aren’t gauge theories and Choi’s theorem examples that invalidate the first? Doesn’t cognitive neuroscience invalidate the second? Don’t sociobiology and planetary ecology invalidate the third? And doesn’t the recent collapse of poorly-regulated financial markets invalidate the fourth?

    Heck, the sole prominent scientist or economist I can think of who publicly espouses objectivism is Alan Greenspan … and even Greenspan has recanted in recent months.

    Among the many questions that objectivism cannot readily answer, among the most important one IMHO is this simple one: What is Bizet’s aria Je crois entendre encore about, and why is it important?


    There are a dozen or more interpretations of Bizet’s aria freely available on the web—for an opera written 145 years ago!—with each interpretation being more passionate and beautiful than the last. Yet from a purely objectivist point of view, why is any song needed at all?

    The cognitive reason that opera belongs wholly to what Scott aptly calls “The Complement of Atlas Shrugged” can perhaps be found in Borges’ short story La Busca de Averroes (“Averroes’ Search”), a story that in its own way is as beautiful as Bizet’s aria.

  92. Siddhartha Says:

    “The web site “” summarizes Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism—in her own words—as the aggregate of just four principles:..”

    I think the four principles are so vague, they don’t have any meaning at all. For instance, what does she mean by “objective absolute”? Does she mean absolute in the classical sense as in everything about the physical world can be determined to an arbitrary degree of precision? Or does she just mean that it is possible to say precise things about the world which can be verified in an “objective” manner like in hard sciences?

    In general, I thoroughly disagree with the idea of presenting any sort of theory concerning people using a novel since a novel does not really contain a justification for the truth of the theory.

  93. John Sidles Says:

    Formless Says: The best I can say is Bizet’s Je crois entendre encore is altruism …

    From a historical point of view, much more can be said about opera than that!

    It is no accident that opera, modern science, modern mathematics, and modern ideas of liberty, all were born conterminously in space and time, as aspects of what is nowadays called the Enlightenment.

    Of all of these manifestations, opera came first. The very name “opera” (from the Latin for “work”) hints at the radically large domain that its creators intended for it, that domain being, to raise to the level of explicit statement and consciousness, all of the radical concepts that nowadays are collectively called the Enlightenment. That this same radical goal was embraced by the early pioneers of science, mathematics, and political philosophy is evident in their writings.

    As the centuries have passed, for many people has opera became “just” music and theater, science has became “just” the testing of hypotheses, mathematics has became “just” theorem-proving, and political philosophy has became “just” politics. In this fashion (to adopt Jonathan Israel’s terms) the early, uncompromising Radical Enlightenment has become muted to the later, accommodating Moderate Enlightenment that today is taught in schools.

    Nowadays, how many people would dare/care to say, even to themselves: “Yes, I am a committed radical … as are all serious artists/scientists/mathematicians!” Yet in the dawning centuries of art, science, and mathematics, this statement would have been regarded as self-evident.

    As a scientific culture, we have forgotten much of our past, our textbooks encourage this forgetfulness in the present, and in consequence, our collective vision of the future has become impoverished. This has become a problem so serious, as to constitute a crisis for our culture and our planet.

  94. Eric Baum Says:

    John Sidles Says:
    Comment #86 March 27th, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    Eric Baum Says: Why is [Atlas Shrugged] going to sell something like half a million copies this year?

    Eric, that sales number seems inflated to me. My Fermi estimate was that a book like Atlas Shrugged could sustain (over the long haul) sales of 50K-100K per year.

    John, according to an interview I saw, Atlas sold 200K copies last year, and is selling at over three times that rate YTD.
    Of course, it didn’t sell at anything like that pace over the previous 50 years, and is unlikely to over the next 50. It’s suddenly more relevant because looters have expanded in Washington and are turning its parody back into reality.

  95. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    Wholehearted agreement with John Sidles @ #95. Sometimes we have modern Opera ABOUT scientists and radicals, as with Doctor Atomic. Or the new Opera in progress with book by Lisa Randall. I would pitch to Baz Luhrman an film and opera about Evariste Galois, as “A Beautiful Mind” meets “The Three Musketeers.”

  96. Eric Dennis Says:

    Scott, I thought your point #2 was worth a lengthier response so I put it here:

  97. John Sidles Says:

    Eric, for Atlas to sell 500,000 copies per year, a book-loving, libertarian-leaning city like Seattle would have to sell about ten new copies per day.

    Speaking as a person who loves to work in libraries and urban bookstores, and has a pretty good feel for what is selling, my own guess is “no way.” But I will put this estimate to the test (when I return from the 50th ENC), by watching Atlas sales at a couple of local bookstores—it will be fun to have a Rand-vs-Spinoza race! (my own guess: the dust on both shelves will remain undisturbed over long periods of time).

    My wife (who has worked in publishing) says “audited book sales are the only ones that can be trusted.” This is especially true regarding books that are published by ideology-driven organizations.

  98. Ted Diesel Says:

    Excellent. Now that Eric Dennis has responded at length, I think we have a real shot at progress in the discussion on physics as it relates to Atlas, to Ayn Rand, and to Objectivism.

    Now, I don’t want to distract from the physics discussion, but I think I can address some of Scott’s other concerns. Let’s take point 4. I paraphrase Scott’s charge as follows: “The heroic or villainous nature of Rand’s characters is so strongly correlated with their physical characteristics, we have little reason to doubt that she believed you can judge people morally solely on their appearances.”

    I’ll concede that a correlation between appearance and moral character is present in Rand’s two major novels. I’m not sure the relationship is quite as simple as Scott implies, but I will leave that aside. The huge point to be introduced here is her explicit view on moral character: specifically, that man is “a being of self-made soul” (Galt’s speech, emphasis mine). And this isn’t just a throwaway line: it’s integrated with her theory of free will and her moral code, both of which are also presented in Galt’s speech. (For some illustrative excerpts and references, see the Lexicon on character and free will.) It is, I think, largely on this basis that she can write so powerfully against racism.

    So if Objectivism says your moral character is based on your choices, what can explain Rand’s correlation of character and appearance in her novels (insofar as the characters lack control over their appearance)? I submit that it was an artistic decision in support of her chosen theme. I think the relevant points from her theory of esthetics run something like this: the details a novelist chooses to include are significant and bear on the nature of the “universe” that the novel communicates. If she had included gratuitous physical defects in her heroes, these defects might have “stuck out” and subtly communicated the unintended message that the ideal is not acheivable in reality, that greatness is necessarily marred by flaws. The primary source here is her essay collection The Romantic Manifesto.

  99. milkshake Says:

    The weak Seattle sales of Ayn Rand novels are probably amply compensated for by the sales in southern Florida. There must be enough of elderly well-off New Yorkers who in their younger years grew in dark on this stuff like fungus.

    By the way Glyn Hughes used to have on his excellent Squashed Philosophers page a neat summary of Mein Kampf with a justification that sometimes the most influential ideas are not necessarily the best ideas, and sometimes they even came from complete ogres. But readers must have complained so he later replaced Adolf with Ayn.

  100. m*s*a*t*v Says:

    Scott, I am sorry about messages earlier. The truth is I was just scared, angry and frustrated. I see the way you use words like “truth”, “acceptance”, “application”, and “registration”and I don’t know what any of them mean for sure. Will you explain? I especially was scared when you said that I was a slave or in slavery and you called me a goon. I have a brother your age. I can’t talk to anyone about any of this, can you please have empathy? I no longer have my prior position if that makes you feel any better. I want you to know that I never stood as a threat to anyone. I would never hurt another human being. I was seriously just trying to do good and I just felt like everyone was lying to me for the sake of wanting to keep my family dying of cancer and to keep my little niece from being able to hear better. I don’t understand why you do it. I’ll be nicer in the future. I’m sorry for what I said to you earlier.

  101. Scott Says:

    M.M.M., I’ll forgive you for threatening my life. But there’s one thing I ask of you in return: please stop submitting hundreds of comments to this blog (many of them pages long), day after day, about your alleged P=NP proof, Jesus Christ, your father, and other topics that rarely have anything to do with my posts. If you have something to say, keep it short, infrequent, and topical—okay?

    (Note to others: you haven’t seen the vast majority of M.M.M.’s posts; they’ve gone straight to the moderation queue.)

  102. John Armstrong Says:

    Scott, that sounds like a treasure trove to be posted some prophylactically safe distance from this weblog.

  103. milkshake Says:

    Looks like you are getting popular for the right reasons. Feynman had problem with unstable-but-obsessive strangers determined on forcing him to learn about their (revolutionary) theories. It got to the point of a restraining order against one young man – after repeated home invasions and threats to Feynman’s life. Maybe Jonathan van Post has more details on the story.

  104. Ted Diesel Says:

    Having responded to one of the more inflammatory concerns of Scott’s, I’ll cast a wider net now. Before I turn to general comments, I think it is pertinent to point out concrete counterexamples to several of the sweeping statements made about the content of Atlas.

    Point 2: Quentin Daniels is an academic scientist, and he is not “evil”; he is one of the good guys. (Robert Stadler does not represent all academic scientists: he lent his name to a major expansion of government control over science, he fails to publicly condemn the “obscurantist popular physics book” that misrepresented his work and that was published by his institute, and he exhibits active disdain for practical applications of science as opposed to mere professional disinterest.)

    Point 3: On family, one of the “good guys” portrayed in Atlantis is a mother raising her children. (Fine, her story is not covered “at length,” but it is an explicit counterexample to the notion that the philosophy of Atlas is categorically anti-family.)

    Point 7: Hank and Dagny disagree in their views of sex, at least for some time. A more lasting disagreement is between Galt and Danneskjold, on whether the latter is spending his time wisely. Also, to dismiss the conflict between Dagny and Hank on the one hand, and the other major good guys on the other, as merely “the one exception” is kind of lame, since it is crucial to the plot.

    Point 9: For competent people who are also portrayed as evil, how about Robert Stadler? (Or from The Fountainhead, how about the competent, power-seeking major character, Gail Wynand?)

    Point 10: Is the racial lineage of every one of her “hundreds” of characters even known? And I’m not an expert on racist theories, but do the extremely major characters Francisco d’Anconia (Spanish ancestry) and Howard Roark (orange hair) qualify as “Aryan”?

  105. Ted Diesel Says:

    I’m having lots of trouble with submitting this comment (three submissions apparently vanished). I suspect it’s the HTML. Here it is with nothing fancier than italics.

    The more general comments I have pertain to the essential structure of much of the reasoning in Scott’s critique. (For Scott personally: please note that I am addressing your critique in a self-contained way, and I think you probably have some better arguments against Objectivism in mind that didn’t make it into your review.)

    Consider the following paraphrases of some arguments in the review above. Point 1: How can a novel defending technology, written in the fifties, fail to mention such contemporary marvels as computers, space travel, plastics, interstate highways, and nuclear energy? Maybe the author isn’t really pro-technology on a philosophical level. Point 2: How can a novel say something deep about human nature without mentioning evolution? Or about science, without mentioning relativity or quantum mechanics, or the details of any other branch of physics? Maybe the author rejected the modern theories. Maybe, when you get down to it, she was actually indifferent to science. Point 8: How can a novel offer lessons relevant to issues of grand historical significance without mentioning contemporary events such as World War II or the Cold War? Point 10: Given that a novelist’s characters don’t fulfill realistic racial quotas, was she really paying attention to actual human beings when she formulated her philosophical themes?

    As arguments, all of these are, to put it charitably, incomplete. In what way does nuclear energy, or evolution, or quantum mechanics, or World War II, or racial integration contradict the philosophy argued for in Galt’s speech? This philosophy is pro-science and pro-technology in obvious ways: the purpose of its morality is the sustenance of your life, and “reason is your means of survival.” And it offers an account of the proper functions of government, which is an issue of world-historical importance if anything is. Furthermore, it is with the guidance of this philosophy that Rand and her followers have commented on a host of concretes not mentioned in Atlas, including space travel and nuclear energy (as well as biotechnology and forestry), evolution WWII (and Nazism specifically), and even parenting and educating children. If there is a contradiction in all of this, where is it?

    This is the problem with reviewing “the complement of Atlas Shrugged.” When criticism fails to engage directly with the explicit philosophy Atlas presents, the criticism only goes so far, and we are left with speculation about whether or not Rand had considered this or that.

  106. Scott Says:

    Ted, thanks for your interesting comments (and sorry they got held up in the spam filter—that was indeed because of the long list of links to Ayn Rand websites). I’m sure we could debate these questions for an arbitrarily long time, if we chose to. But with your kind indulgence, I’d like to move the conversation in a different direction. I’ve been pretty clear, in this thread, about what I admired in Rand’s fiction. Is there anything in Atlas that you didn’t like? Or do you find yourself in complete agreement with Rand about everything?

  107. Ted Diesel Says:


    Brief answers: (1) Well, I haven’t read Atlas all the way through in years. Without getting too personal, I can report only a couple of minor peeves I’ve felt. Maybe the popularity of the phrase “who is John Galt” seemed contrived. And I would prefer less smoking. (2) No, and I don’t call myself an Objectivist. I am very sympathetic to the broad outlines of the philosophy, but I’m not in a position to sign off on every sentence of Galt’s speech and the rest. I need to study more history, for one thing.

    I could’ve gone on longer, but I’m getting the impression that I got through your Spam filter only to land in your Bozo filter. Frankly, maybe I should just get off your case. Even if my points have been basically valid, I have been overly prolific considering that it’s your blog.

    I’m disappointed, though, that I didn’t get to see a debate featuring Bohmian mechanics against your favored “Ricoh interpretation” of quantum mechanics. 🙂

  108. Scott Says:

    Believe me, Ted: if you saw what was in my bozo filter, you’d see you didn’t come anywhere close! 🙂 I wasn’t just being polite when I thanked you for the thoughtful comments (I apologize for not answering them point-by-point). Admittedly, you did come off a little bit like a Randroid, which is why I’m happy to hear you didn’t like all the smoking or John-Galt-identity-querying (I didn’t either).

    Now, if it’s Bohmian mechanics you want to discuss: my central problem with Bohmian mechanics is that it commits itself to a specific evolution rule, involving a Hilbert space of particle positions (x,y,z)∈R3 in Euclidean 3-space. I see no good reason to think that particular Hilbert space reflects something fundamental about physics, and excellent reasons to think it doesn’t. Even if we ignore SR and GR, which completely change the geometry we’re talking about, we know that particles have properties, such as spin, that are not reducible to position or momentum.

    You might respond: fine, then just supplement Bohmian mechanics by including some evolution rule for the spin state. But if you do that, then you’re necessarily going to lose Bohmian mechanics’ most-touted feature: its determinism! This is because there are no deterministic evolution rules like Bohm’s for finite-dimensional Hilbert spaces—his trick only works in infinite-dimensional Hilbert space. I elaborate on this point in Democritus Lecture 11 (scroll to the very bottom).

    In fact, the Bekenstein entropy bound tells us that in quantum gravity, even position and momentum should be quantized—that is, they should live in a finite-dimensional Hilbert space. So in that case, a deterministic evolution rule like Bohm’s won’t even work for position and momentum.

    The broader problem is that, when you consider the state spaces and Hamiltonians that arise in physics, you can come up with a huge number of hidden-variable evolution rules that all look reasonable. All of these rules will be different, but they’ll all perfectly reproduce the predictions of quantum mechanics, and will therefore be empirically indistinguishable from each other. In general, I see no way to single out just one of the rules (as Bohm did), and anoint it the “true” one. The best we can do, I think, is classify various rules as “better” or “worse” depending on which intuitive axioms they satisfy. If you’re interested, I developed this perspective further in my paper Quantum Computing and Hidden Variables.

  109. Eric Dennis Says:

    Scott, actually I *see* a very good reason to think there’s something special about the position representation, namely it’s the actual representation associated with how I see (as in visually perceive) the world, and that’s not an accident. Because, physically, there is something important and unique about positions: the real Hamiltonian is local in position space. And, as John Bell said, there’s no reason to commit redundancy and risk inconsistency by formulating your theory in multiple different representations if you don’t need to.

    Now spin is rather easy to incorporate into Bohmian mechanics. You don’t do it by just augmenting the classical configuration space with a 3-vector or something and look for a new evolution law. Rather you generalize Bohmian mechanics in a straightforward way for spinor wavefunctions. See, e.g.,

    More generally, relativistic quantum field theories may be Bohmized, as in

    which is a development of Bell’s own generalization put forth in “Beables for quantum field theory” included in *Speakable and unspeakable in quantum mechanics*.

    You seem to think this latter kind of program fails because it employs a stochastic evolution law. But here is an important point to understand where fans of Bohm (and for that matter of metaphysical realism, a la Rand) are coming from. We don’t care primarily about stochastic evolution. We care about subjectivism, i.e. about the introduction of ad hoc postulates involving consciousness into the fundamental laws of physics. The virtue of Bohm’s theory is that we recover all of quantum mechanics without falling back on the cop-out of subjectivism.

    Now something like many worlds also claims to eliminate subjectivism (kudos on the attempt!) but winds up making equally bad philosophic claims. (See the blog post I linked in my last comment.) I regard these questions as dwarfing issues like the preservation of representation-invariance or the non-uniqueness of the evolution law, which are consequential neither philosophically nor in terms of physical predictivity.

    Also regarding the non-uniqueness of the evolution law, we can always be Bayesian as an interim measure 😉

  110. Major Mike Says:

    I recently published a modern version of Emerson’s On Nature. Y’all may find it interesting given the intellectual debate on this site. Below is the link.


    Major Michael Few

    Nature Redux: