March 26th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: EDITORIAL: Indonesian President in Australia

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Behind the skills shortage in the not-so-clever country

FOREIGN TRADE: The perils of bilateral trade agreements

SCHOOLS: Teacher unions enforcing the gender agenda

SPECIAL FEATURE: Murder and insurrection: Lance Sharkey in Singapore

BIOETHICS: UN backs ban on human cloning

OPINION: Cutting the abortion rate - the political options

THINKERS: Philosopher of greed: Ayn Rand

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Dicing with our future / China rampant / Double standards?

INTERNATIONAL LAW: Behind the Timor Sea Treaty dispute

HONG KONG: China's man in Hong Kong quits

ASIA: Australia has role in great power contest

PAKISTAN: What role should Islam play in Pakistan?

Unemployment only five per cent? (letter)

How can we save our schools? (letter)

Urban riots a 'wake-up call' (letter)

BOOKS: FEWER: How the new demography of depopulation will shape our future

BOOKS: NELSON'S PURSE, by Martyn Downer

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Philosopher of greed: Ayn Rand

by Damian Wyld

News Weekly, March 26, 2005
February 2, 2005 marked a date which would have passed unnoticed but for an article in The Australian. It was, in fact, the centenary of the birth of author and philosopher Ayn Rand. While the article provided an interesting glimpse of Rand and her ongoing influence, it presumably did not have room to delve beneath the surface of her very questionable beliefs.

Ayn Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum to ethnically, but non-practising, Jewish parents in St Petersburg in 1905. She became an atheist at an early age before studying history and philosophy at the University of Petrograd during the early years of the Soviet regime. During her studies, she read and drew on inspiration from sources as diverse as Victor Hugo and Friedrich Nietzsche and came to regard America as a nation to be emulated for its freedoms - an idealistic antithesis to the oppressive communist system she was then enduring.

Arriving in the US in 1926 on a study visa, she never returned to Russia and instead embarked on a career that included writing books, stage productions and screenplays. Her fictional works, such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, served in part to lay the foundations of her philosophical system. From the 1950s until her death in 1982, most of her work was devoted to developing and expounding this system, known as Objectivism.

The Australian article was right to comment on the undeniable influence of Rand's works. Rand was, for example, a long-time acquaintance of US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and, in an Australian context, knew Malcolm Fraser while he was in office. According to the Ayn Rand Institute, all of Rand's books are still in print and sales have exceeded an astonishing 20 million copies globally.

So what, then, are the tenets of Objectivism which Rand sought to impart in her writings? As with any philosophical system, it is difficult to do justice in so short a space. However, when asked the question, Rand once summarised her answer as follows:

1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality

2. Epistemology: Reason

3. Ethics: Self-interest

4. Politics: Capitalism

Ayn Rand taught that, in a purely material world, man could only derive knowledge from proper use of his reason and this would, therefore, rightly lead him to base his behaviour solely on self-interest. In an existence devoid of any concept of faith or revelation, Rand's man becomes the ultimate egoist, who shrugs off altruism and self-sacrifice and turns to capitalism to fill the moral void.

According to Rand, a purely "rational" man, with no other guiding moral framework, would naturally turn to capitalism (as opposed to, say, anarchism, for which the author believes a much stronger apologia could be made in such a scenario).

The ramifications of Rand's support for blinkered and extreme individualism were apparent when she outlined some of her beliefs to Playboy magazine in 1964:

"[To] place such things as friendship and family ties above ... productive work, yes, [that is] immoral. Friendship, family life and human relationships are not primary in a man's life. A man who places others first, above his own creative work, is an emotional parasite ...

"Love is not self-sacrifice, but the most profound assertion of your own needs and values ...

" is in the name of that symbol [the Cross] that men are asked to sacrifice themselves for their inferiors. That is precisely how the symbolism is used. That is torture."

Faith and God are, to a good Objectivist, the very "negation of Reason".

Rand was vocal in her support for abortion but, curiously, was personally (and, hence, "irrationally"?) opposed to homosexuality, which she condemned as "immoral" and "disgusting".

Rand also believed that compulsory taxation could be replaced by voluntary payments (as no-one should be coerced to support the common good) and that the role of the government should be reduced to mere enforcement of law and order through the police, courts and armed forces.

Every other conceivable good or service, even public roads, should be privately owned. Aside from the pleasant notion of the abolition of taxation, it takes no stretch of the imagination to see how far Rand's ideas have permeated society and borne fruit.

G.K. Chesterton is often credited for saying that "When a man ceases to believe in God, he does not believe in nothing; he believes in anything". In the case of Objectivism, abandoning all sense of service or a "higher purpose" points to an egotistical, selfish existence with little regard for the welfare of others. But unlike Voltaire, who once observed that "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him", Rand conceived of a stand-alone moral order based on the worship of reason and the dollar.

Is it any wonder that Rand's ideas continue to appeal in a moral vacuum?

  • Damian Wyld

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