Goddess of the Market
I recently finished reading Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by historian Jennifer Burns. As someone who enjoyed Ayn Rand’s novels and likes elements of her philosophy I was drawn to the book. There have been many Ayn Rand biographies but up until now they were almost exclusively written by passionate supporters (and as a skeptic, I want something at least a little more objective) or others writing without access to all the historical information held by the Ayn Rand Institute.
Probably one of the most memorable aspects of Ayn Rand’s life to me is how she started out as a skeptic, and a pretty good skeptic at that, but succumbed to dogma and eventually cut herself completely off from other ideas and the constructive criticism of her own ideas. She was born in Russia in 1905 to a well off Jewish family. Her father worked hard, from a disadvantaged position, and created a successful small business. During the Bolshevik revolution Rand had to watch as her fathers livelihood was destroyed and as her county’s freedoms were being eroded. Her once prosperous family was now starving, and it wasn’t as if the wealth was simply transferred, it was gone, almost everyone was starving.
She eventually made her way to the U.S. because she thought of it as the land of the free. As she arrived however, American intellectuals were beginning to lean farther and farther to the left and many advocated for the U.S. to follow Russia’s footsteps. The stark contrast between the vision of the American intellectuals and the reality as she saw it in Russia guided much of her early work. She was motivated to research and study questions of philosophy, economics, political science, and many others trying to figure out why freedom seemed to work and totalitarian control did not. It was this skeptical search that led to her trying to create a unified philosophy explaining why individual freedom, and self-interest, leads to the greatest outcome for society.
The problem was that the more she developed this philosophy, the more she moved away from seeking out conflicting ideas, from engaging in debate and in general, from being skeptical. Closer to the end of her life she would often refuse to speak to others unless they agreed 100% with her entire objectivist philosophy. She even changed parts of her older novels so that they fit into her now fully formed objectivist philosophy.
Her story came as somewhat of a warning to me, and I suppose to skeptics in general. The more you feel that evidence and logic backs a theory or belief, as Ayn Rand felt about her philosophy, the more skeptical you should be, the more you should question your evidence, and the more you should check your logic. Critical inquiry doesn’t stop when you believe you have reached the truth, and if Ayn Rand realized this her philosophy might have ended up as something more than just dogma.