I shrugged too

As someone pithier than I first pointed out, I think I now have an idea how Jewish kids feel at Christmas time. Lots of other people in the libertarian blogosphere are really excited about the new Atlas Shrugged movie, but I just can’t bring myself to care.

People have told me that, given my libertarian economic leanings, I really should read Ayn Rand, and I suspect they’re probably right. I had a copy of Atlas Shrugged at one time, but I was never able to get more than a few pages into it. The writing just didn’t grab me, and I lacked the willpower to force myself to read it.

I’ve been thinking of downloading a copy to my Kindle, so I could read it when I had nothing else to do, but the only available version costs $18.99 to download. That’s more than the printed editions, and it’s a crazy price for a book that’s been out for over 50 years.

Note to Objectivists: Of course I have no objections to the owners of Atlas Shrugged making a profit off of it, but if you hope to convert other people to your way of thinking, you might want to try making it easier for them to read the seminal works of your philosophy. By comparison, Capitalism: A Love Story is available on DVD for only $11.49, Keynes’s General Theory is available as an e-book for $2.99, and the Communist Manifesto is free.

Then there’s the problem that Objectivism smells just a little bit like a cult. For one thing, its adherents seem to be trying to tie the whole world into a single philosophy. I mean, I believe in a metaphysics of objective reality, and I believe in the inherent morality of free-market capitalism, but for the life of me I can’t understand how one meaningfully leads to the other, except in the most trivial sense. Throw in an Objectivist theory of art, and it starts to look like a serious case of overreaching.

The second reason Objectivism seems a bit like a cult is that it just seems weird that Ayn Rand and Objectivism are always so closely linked. In contrast, although Sir Isaac Newton invented classical mechanics, which is sometimes even called Newtonian physics, you can study mechanics and use it productively without ever having to learn anything about Newton’s life. Also, you don’t have to read Principia to be a physicist. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t. An ordinary physics textbook, or even Wikipedia, will explain everything with far more rigor and clarity than Newton did the first time.

Note that none of this is an objection to the philosophy of Objectivism. As I said at the start, if I learned more about Objectivism, I think I’d probably find a lot that I agree with. In fact, essays like this one make me think I may be more of an Objectivist than I realized. For some reason, that really annoys me.

About Mark:
Mark is a computer programmer, website builder, photographer, and sometimes journalist in Chicago, where he also writes the long-running Windypundit blog.
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  1. Posted April 17, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    Johann Hari, in Slate, compared Rand to L. Ron Hubbard, “another crazed, pitiable charlatan who used trashy potboilers to whip up a cult. Unfortunately, Rand’s cult isn’t confined to Tom Cruise and a rash of Hollywood dimwits. No, its ideas and its impulses have, by drilling into the basest human instincts, captured one of America’s major political parties.” http://www.slate.com/id/2233966/

    That might be accurate or it might be ridiculous, I don’t know enough to say; Hari is a bit of a reflexive leftist (so I’m skeptical) but he’s usually a damn entertaining writer, and he’s got “Christopher Hitchens potential” (I have a feeling dat, like Hitch, he will become more independent of doctrinary ideology over time).

    I do find the Rand cult a bit disturbing and have never felt compelled to join it. Will definitely check out the movie though.

    On the topic of book prices, I rarely pay full price for any book. Amazon Marketplace usually has “very good” or “like new” copies of a book that vary from a penny to ten bucks and up. I rarely pay more than three or four bucks, plus a few dollars shipping.

    You’re on your own when it comes to cheaper e-books. I have no idea.

  2. Posted April 18, 2011 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    That piece by Johann Hari illustrates some of the problems I keep running into when I try to learn more about Objectivism. He’s mixing and matching elements from Rand’s life, Rand’s fiction, and Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, all three of which are undoubtedly related but not interchangeable. Then there’s the fact that the allies and opponents of Rand and Objectivism each have their own version of each of those three things, and it just gets more confusing and less fruitful.

    Hari says that Rand supported “Bernie Madoff-style embezzlers,” yet that contradicts much of what I’ve read about the value that Objectivism places on truth, and Hari offers no more details. For all I know, he’s right, but I suspect that Hari doesn’t believe there’s much difference between a captain of industry and a lying con man.

    In any case, although some of Hari’s criticisms match my impression of Objectivism–I am also disturbed by Rand’s apparent contempt for altruism–I’m reluctant to badmouth Objectivism until I learn more about it. And it’s boring stuff to learn about.

  3. Posted April 21, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    I finally managed to “read” Atlas Shrugged a few years ago by listening to the audiobook, which I got from Audible since it was the cheapest way to do it. If you have the time during commutes, for example, it’s an easy way to get through it. The quality of the performance is good.

    That said, while I enjoyed Atlas (and The Fountainhead), I’m with you on Objectivism. It’s too much of an ideology to be accepted rather than a philosophy to be considered. I’ve only read a little bit on it, and I find it interesting, but the world’s a little more complicated than how Objectivism seems to be sold.