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I for one welcome our new Objectivist overlords

Mark Lilla argues in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education that academe should take the intellectual history of conservatism more seriously, and of course I agree.  Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that what’s most annoying about David Horowitz is that “he has a point,” and of course I wouldn’t trot out Ye Olde Dinner Party Anecdote either (this one involving “a dinner in Paris in the late 1980s with a distinguished American historian of France who had gathered her graduate students for the evening,” no less!), for pretty much the same reason that I refrain from nailing down my arguments by adducing any of the millions of taxi drivers who see the world precisely as I do.  But yes, of course I agree that liberal and left academics (and their students) would be better off if they engaged seriously with conservative intellectuals, so long as the conservatives in question are actually intellectuals (Edmund Burke yes, David Horowitz not so much).

Why, just yesterday I read Jon Chait’s essay on Ayn Rand in order to understand why all the Objectivists I’ve known seem to believe that they are Super Geniuses.  In the course of learning more about that, I also learned why it is that many of these Super Geniuses believe that the rich are rich solely because they work hard, and the poor are poor because they do not.  (The disabled, meanwhile, fall under the general heading of “the unproductive,” and since it would be immoral to reward unproductive people with access to a common pool socialist confiscation of goods and services even if their lack of productivity, unlike that of the poor, isn’t entirely their fault, it’s off to the private charities for them, and good luck.) Then I read Glenn Greenwald on why Some People don’t want Other People to have houses and health care and other luxuries, like the new “cellular” phones and “color” televisions.  So yeah, I’d have to say that it’s important to study Ayn Rand and her influence on American culture, regardless of whether she’s properly “conservative” or not.

It might even be worth studying Rand’s influence in academe, since, as Chait notes, “[t]oday numerous CEOs swear by Rand. One of them is John Allison, the outspoken head of BB&T, who has made large grants to several universities contingent upon their making Atlas Shrugged mandatory reading for their students.” And that is not all, oh no, that is not all!  One of those grants, awarded in March 2008, was a $2 million gift to the University of Texas-Austin to establish “to establish the BB&T Chair for the Study of Objectivism.” The professor named to that chair appeared in the pages of the New York Times last November with a searing letter to the editor placing the blame for the global financial crisis squarely where it belongs—on excessive regulation of the financial markets:

It is curious that after denouncing economists for failing to predict the credit crisis, James Galbraith perpetuates the myth that Alan Greenspan oversaw a “deregulated” economy (Questions for, Nov. 2). Sarbanes-Oxley introduced a maze of restrictions on the financial industry, and dozens of government departments, agencies and commissions issued more than 51,000 regulatory rules between 1995 and 2007 alone (most of these while Republicans controlled Congress). Regulation has contributed enormously to strangling our financial and economic system, and neither effective solutions nor better forecasting can be expected until we face this.

Department of Philosophy
University of Texas
Austin, Tex.

Whatever else might be said about Rand-loving banking CEOs like John Allison, you can’t say they don’t believe in a free marketplace of ideas, or—what amounts to the same thing—ideas about the free marketplace.  And academe definitely needs to take that more seriously.

Posted by on 09/15 at 03:17 PM
  1. How does Mark Lilla hold that I’m-disappointed-in-all-of-you pose for so long?  I want lessons.

    Posted by  on  09/15  at  05:01 PM
  2. The Editor must have redacted the part where Smith specifies the ill effects of the regulation she decries, and shows how to assess their cost.

    Posted by  on  09/15  at  05:13 PM
  3. I would expect no less of the epicenter of the liberal media, Vance.

    In answer to Colin:  same way you get to Carnegie Hall.

    Posted by Michael  on  09/15  at  05:26 PM
  4. Posted by  on  09/15  at  05:26 PM
  5. in order to understand why all the Objectivists I’ve known seem to believe that they are Super Geniuses

    How come all the self-tagged Objectivists I’ve known or read about all seem to come from privileged backgrounds. Megan McArdle, I’m lookin’ at you.

    Posted by  on  09/15  at  05:27 PM
  6. The Objectivist I know doesn’t hold private charities responsible only for the disabled. That’s her solution for the 40 million plus Americans without health insurance, too. Of course, she’s not lifting a single greedy, arrogant finger to facilitate that. Which charities, exactly, might take on that responsibility?

    Objectivists make me cuss a blue streak. They’re not racist like your other Teabaggers—they hate everyone less fortunate than themselves no matter what their skin color may be.

    Posted by Orange  on  09/15  at  05:40 PM
  7. Excuse me, ed, Orange, but Objectivists who come from privileged backgrounds do so because of their superior intelligence and dedication to hard work.

    Posted by Michael  on  09/15  at  05:44 PM
  8. ...which is what permits them to hate all of their Lessers. They’re alphas, right? And those without insurance are, at best, Gammas.

    Posted by Orange  on  09/15  at  05:48 PM
  9. I went to St. John’s College (y’know, the “great books” school that’s secular but not ubertiny), and every single damn year, stretching back to decades, a stalwart Objectivist freshman comes in and founds the SJC Objectivist Society in September, usually with a letter to the dean that Ms. Rand be put on the reading list double quick, or else. By May, after two semesters of reading, um, actual philosphy written by actual philosophers, the Society has quietly crumbled into nothingness, to be born once more, Phoenix-like, when another stalwart Objectivist freshman rolls into town.

    Posted by Fafner  on  09/15  at  06:41 PM
  10. From TFA (Chait) --

    (The anti-government activist Grover Norquist has told a similar story from childhood, in which his father would steal bites of his ice cream cone, labelling each bite “sales tax” or “income tax.” The psychological link between a certain form of childhood deprivation and extreme libertarianism awaits serious study.)

    So government is a father figure who shows up hungry every time there’s an ice cream cone. Q: Did pere Norquist meet his end in a bath tub accident?

    Posted by  on  09/15  at  07:17 PM
  11. If the those lazy preborn would get off their asses and do some research before picking their parents, they could be privileged too. But, as we can see, they’re already slacking off even before conception. Losers.

    Posted by  on  09/15  at  08:04 PM
  12. Notably, seven months after establishing the BB&T Chair at U-T, BB&T took $3.1 billion in bailout money. I like to think that at that moment, the Earth just pulverized Atlas beneath it.

    Posted by  on  09/15  at  08:10 PM
  13. Ah, va, you imply that this is hypocrisy on the part of BB&T, but in reality, it is the way of the master race.  As Chait points out:

    Rand held up her own meteoric rise from penniless immigrant to wealthy author as a case study of the individualist ethos. “No one helped me,” she wrote, “nor did I think at any time that it was anyone’s duty to help me.”

    But this was false. Rand spent her first months in this country subsisting on loans from relatives in Chicago, which she promised to repay lavishly when she struck it rich. (She reneged, never speaking to her Chicago family again.)

    Repaying loans is for weak and little people.

    Posted by Michael  on  09/15  at  08:53 PM
  14. I like to think that at that moment, the Earth just pulverized Atlas beneath it.

    Uh, no, Atlas pocketed* the bailout money, then made some sort of expressive “What ya gonna do?” movement with his shoulders.

    And everyplace I’ve been that’s covered Chait’s article (Okay, both of them), there’s been a link to this work.  (Hey, I don’t pay for Stephen Notley’s bandwidth.  Is it my fault he wasn’t born with an expensive router and a fiber optic connection to the internet backbone?)

    *As to where he pocketed it, let’s just say Atlas is a proud teabagger, and stop there.

    Posted by  on  09/15  at  09:56 PM
  15. I strongly object to the Objectivists using objective in their descriptions. For one I reserve that word for discussions about the fundamental nature of reality. You know the quantum mechanics...observation...creates the phenomenon stuff. And I prefer to leave it there. Secondly, here’s an objective statement: Ayn Rand just sucks.

    captcha “asked” as in “asked and answered”

    and I won’t take any of their crap seriously. Ever.

    Posted by  on  09/15  at  10:28 PM
  16. Satire that Randian’s just won’t get!

    Posted by  on  09/15  at  10:38 PM
  17. Comparing the comment count between this post and the last, it’s clear there’s far more support for the study of cartoon theme songs than for the study of Obectivism. Time-Warner should fund a Cliff Friend Chair at some deserving school.

    Posted by Dr. Drang  on  09/15  at  10:50 PM
  18. Speaking of cartoons, I must confess that (agreeing with Elliot as I do re: the Rand woman and so basically just skimming that part) what jumped out at me most about this post was the Cat in the Hat reference, which I appreciated very much.

    Posted by Dave Maier  on  09/16  at  12:33 AM
  19. Time-Warner should fund a Cliff Friend Chair at some deserving school.

    How about a Cliff Friend Cliff, for Objectivists to go Galting off of?

    Posted by  on  09/16  at  12:38 AM
  20. @Fafner: When I was a wee, precocious thing I desperately wanted to go to school at St. Johns and was never sure why, but now you have reassured me that my instincts were correct with your beautiful story of Randians turned to reason. And can we just say, “to hell with Ayn Rand and all her followers?” They’re absurdly influential (see Alan Greenspan) and genuinely creepy (see ditto).

    Posted by sfmike  on  09/16  at  02:32 AM
  21. Did someone in Mad Men say he had to do more handjobs to satisfy the inclusion of Black/African Americans on TV???  Not that that is germane to the discussion, other than that it is in so many ways.

    Posted by  on  09/16  at  06:15 AM
  22. not sure why the glowing links to the chait piece--seemed quite pedestrian to me. is it because nobody knows about ayn? wish you would clue me in.

    Posted by  on  09/16  at  07:29 AM
  23. Yikes!  Are my links glowing?  I just wanted to take Mark Lilla’s suggestion in a more ... productive direction.  Chait just happened to be within arm’s reach this week.

    And I’m glad you liked the Cat in the Hat reference, Dave.  I’ve always said that people need to study the great works of Western literature if they hope to be able to communicate effectively.

    Posted by Michael  on  09/16  at  07:52 AM
  24. Who is Ayn Rand?

    Posted by J. Fisher  on  09/16  at  09:17 AM
  25. Perhaps Lilla et al. should establish John Galt University. The price of admission should be outrageous with no socialistic scholarships or financial aid, of course, assuring that only super geniuses are admitted. I hesitated before throwing this out there, because the rest of us will be doomed once all the super geniuses band separately to form their pure, me-first society. Grading could be tricky – I’m thinking one “A” per class and everyone else fails. Guess I’ll leave the details to the super geniuses.

    Posted by  on  09/16  at  10:29 AM
  26. I for one would rather see a Tony Cliff chair, Dr. Drang.

    Posted by  on  09/16  at  10:42 AM
  27. Since no one else has, I’ll pimp this classic commentary.

    I think we may be under-selling the objectivists, though. It does take a certain genius, after all, to package valueless assets into valueless securities and sell them for huge profits.

    Posted by Evil Bender  on  09/16  at  11:51 AM
  28. Since no one else has, I’ll pimp this classic commentary.

    Great, I thought we had all agreed to move on from that embarrassing era when I was commenting as “no one else.” Thanks for reopening old wounds, Evil Bender.

    (Though I notice your your link didn’t pick Notley’s bandwidth pocket.  Socialist.)

    Posted by  on  09/16  at  12:18 PM
  29. I officially suck.

    I’ll offer the feeble defense that I was busy demanding the wealth of the productive at gunpoint, by which of course I mean favoring a moderate extension of the social safety net.

    Posted by Evil Bender  on  09/16  at  12:22 PM
  30. How did we get this far without someone mentioning Geddy Lee?  Just wondering.

    Posted by  on  09/16  at  12:25 PM
  31. Or Nearl Peart.

    Posted by  on  09/16  at  12:28 PM
  32. no, not your link. like erza and matt saying it was the best thing written on rand, a must-read, etc. come on, enlighten me.

    Posted by  on  09/16  at  12:34 PM
  33. Little-known fact: Cliff Claven was a huge Objectivist.

    Posted by Orange  on  09/16  at  12:55 PM
  34. like erza and matt saying it was the best thing written on rand, a must-read, etc. come on, enlighten me.

    My goodness, those are glowing links!  It’s like the car trunk in Repo Man!  Jon Chait’s essay, greatest thing since panini bread!  Well, I got nothin’—no enlightenment, no insight, just a surmise that sometimes, These Kids Today are a bit too easily impressed by your basic Ayn Rand takedown.

    Now, back in aught-five, we had Johann Hari, and way back in aught-three, there was Kieran Healy’s immortal Oh god. Ayn Rand. Fourteen year olds of the world unite! The car keys shall be yours by sheer force of will! Objectivism requires it! Which, I think, still wins the Internet.

    Posted by  on  09/16  at  01:25 PM
  35. So Mark Lilla wants universities to do more to include conservatives.  How interesting.  He doesn’t seem interested in having forum for public intellectuals like “Harpers” or “The New York Review of Books” go out of their way to include rival versions of recent French intellectual history.  Nobody is asking Michael Scott Christofferson for his opinion of things.  I thought that his “French Intellectuals Against the Left: the Antitotalitarian Moment of the 1970s” was an intelligent and nuanced account of its subject.  But then one might cynically suggest that intelligence and nuance aren’t what Paul Berman or Leon Wieseltier were looking for.

    Posted by  on  09/16  at  11:22 PM
  36. Chait’s essay provided further proof to me that Rand and her followers had much in common with American Stalinists in both their style and actions towards each other, and those around them.

    Posted by Mitchell Freedman  on  09/17  at  01:24 AM
  37. I had to comment when I saw that the captcha was “human.” I love the post and the comments are hilarious, especially “fafner.” Thanks for the laughs!

    Posted by  on  09/17  at  11:15 AM
  38. Many of the objectivist arguments remind me of Raskolnikov the soon to be murderer in the earlier parts of Crime and Punishment. I think their arguments are about as respectable and worth analysing as Raskolnikov’s justification.

    Posted by  on  09/18  at  12:11 AM
  39. Reminds me of the not one, but two episodes in the first season of Mad Men when the boss tells his favorite second-in-commands to read Ayn Rand.

    Posted by steventhomas  on  09/20  at  09:37 PM
  40. Wait, wasn’t the point of this entry to encourage a more serious consideration of the intellectual history of conservatism?  (Or was that sarcastic and it went over my head [again]?)

    These commenters are obviously way smarter than the ones on Horowitz’s blog, but that musty circle-jerk smell is in both places.

    Also, if “conservatism” means those who oppose large government, taxation, and welfare, then...what conservatism?

    Posted by  on  09/21  at  04:11 PM
  41. Dang, we’ve been caught circle-jerking again!  The smell gave us away.

    Seriously, Nadaav, there were two points here, with which most of the commenters are thoroughly familiar (being regular readers and all).  One, there should be more serious consideration of the intellectual history of conservatism.  Two, unlike some of the people who say this, I actually try every now and then to call attention to conservative initiatives to fund institutions, programs, and individual faculty positions precisely to promote a specific political agenda.  Someday, when Stanley Fish finds out about these, he’s going to be really surprised.

    When you put the two points together, it’s possible to consider that “studying the intellectual history of conservatism” is not (as so many conservative intellectuals seem to believe) equivalent to espousing or promoting conservative ideas.

    Captcha:  college. I love that device sometimes.

    Posted by Michael  on  09/22  at  03:45 PM
  42. Partisan,

    Thank you for your kind words about my book “French Intellectuals Against the Left.” No, nobody in the American highbrow media is asking me about my opinion on French intellectual history, but then again I did not write my book for Mark Lilla, Paul Berman, and company. The book was written to engage a French debate about France’s own history. Consequently, it is largely irrelevant to the concerns of the Mark Lillas of the world. On the other hand, my work has finally reached its intended audience. “French intellectuals against the Left” just came out in French translation, and the French are asking me about my opinion of their history. Perhaps some day one of Lilla’s books will appear in French translation as well… although I would not hold my breath waiting.

    Michael Christofferson

    Posted by  on  10/02  at  09:42 PM





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