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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

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.

TARA SMITH
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 Michael on 09/15 at 03:17 PM
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