Marketplace of Ideas? — Oh,

Marketplace of Ideas? — Oh, and does an imbalance in the marketplace of ideas even make sense? At the commencement of their theory of conservative hegemony, the Commonwealers cite the following, under the heading “There is an imbalance in the marketplace of ideas“:
“It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market…” – US Supreme Court, 1969, Red Lion Broadcasting vs FCC (Upholding the Fairness Doctrine)
Why is this there?
The implication seems to be that inspired right-wing strategy has lead, or is leading, to the monopolization of the marketplace. However, since the First Amendment is as robust as ever (that is, the market is operating under conditions of fair competition), thanks in part to libertarians and classical liberal Republicans, the obvious implication of the quote is that the truth is coming to the fore, and that's why the left is doing so poorly. Of course, you can't be of the left and believe that your principles have been found wanting in the process of free deliberative discourse. So you have to devise an alternative explanation. Hence the conspiracy theory. And hence the conviction that there is an imbalance. If the equilibrium state of the market tracks truth, and you know your ideas are true, but the market isn't tracking your ideas, then there must be some factor distorting the market.
It seems a rather desperate set of ideas to be founding a think tank upon.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

62 thoughts

  1. What he said. Great rebuttal and as you stated Will, Chait cherry-picks quotes from Rand and somehow mistakenly interpolates viewpoints from Rand that contradict her writings. Chait also gets into Rand’s personal life in more detail than I care to know while humping his vision for a better “progressive” America. BTW, was that supposed to be a book(s) review? Cause I didn’t learn much about the books.

  2. This is one of the best readings of Rand I’ve read in a long time. I’ve grown weary of the cartoon versions. Rand was an imperfect, complex woman, but she was undoubtedly a great thinker who made many an intellectual sweat to refute her.

  3. The only Rand book I have read is Anthem and I read it in like the seventh grade. I did think it was important to criticize communism/socialism not just on practical grounds, but also because it deprived people of individuality.

  4. One of my favorite moments in “The Fountainhead” is after Roark declines a profitable commission that would require him to compromise his vision. He’s accused of being “fanantical and selfless” and he responds, “that was the most selfish thing you’ve ever seen a man do.”
    Additionally, in “Atlas Shrugged,” John Galt could have made billions off his static electric motor, but that was not his primary motivation.

  5. what i love about the “novelist” ayn rand is how complex and multidimensional her characters are. they’re so real! so much Truth! she was a true novelist, a real artist, not at all just a worthless polemicist.

    1. I find that a curious position. While I was absolutely enraptured by Atlas Shrugged, I thought character was Ms. Rosenbaum’s weakest point. Far better were her sense of location, her ability to create an atmosphere, her plot and her solid prose.

    1. i share your love of sarcasm.
      more than that, i love how richly textured the “novelist” ayn rand’s fiction was. and how funny she was! she was a true artist, not a screechingly partisan hack. her contribution to american letters was significant.

      1. This is tiresome.
        This is a very common “criticism” of Rand.
        There are many kinds of legitimately good novels, and they’re not all richly textured with multi-dimensional, realistic, characters. Often, there’s something else going on that many people enjoy and find valuable. If you can’t appreciate it (if, indeed, you’ve actually made an attempt), that’s too bad for you.
        She was funny, she was a true artist, and her contribution to American letters was significant. This is true of many writers that I strongly disagree with, too.

  6. From your description of Rand, it seems that she couldn’t make up her mind whether to be for or against capitalism. Her disdain for the “sell-outs” was the same as that of any socialist, for the free choice of those they “sold out” to, and for economic freedom per se.
    And Rand missed the point, and Chait misses it, and all of you miss it, in your discussions of redistribution, that it doesn’t work, doesn’t pay, doesn’t make the poor richer but poorer, and doesn’t reduce but increases inequality.

    1. You should probably actually read Rand – especially, “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal”. Rand’s point, like any free market supporter you will find today (see: George Reisman, is that when you start mixing the government into the equation you no longer have free enterprise – the more government that gets mixed, the less you can rightly call the system capitalist. Right now, it’s far more appropriate to label the US economy as “corporatist” or even in some ways “mercantilist”. This is patently not capitalism.
      The “sellouts” in Ayn Rands world are not people who decided to offer products they didn’t necessarily use or like themselves, or even working just for money. The sellouts are those who abandoned voluntary exchange and instead went to government in order to have special laws or taxes passed which put their competitors out of business. The villains of both the Fountainhead & Atlas Shrugged are those who cease being traders, and instead turn into the cowardly business leaders we see in America right now – getting government to force taxpayers to prop them up in spite of their destructive and unwanted decisions.

  7. What would Ayn Rand think of Rambo – a highly trained soldier who can take on armies and win? Especially as Rambo can “think for himself” in using underground geurilla tactics whilst his foes are standard soldiers simply follow orders and protocol and therefore get their butts kicked? Is this not similar to her concept of a brilliant few wealth producing individual who are so gifted they can disappear from the economy and society ends up going to Hell in a handbasket?

  8. Um, didn’t most people who read (or heard about) Ayn Rand in high school or college … grow out of it? (Except Steve Ditko.)
    Hardly an important or very interesting figure of the twentieth century — just a bad novelist.
    But terms like “the redistributive state” are a clue that you’ve encountered someone who never did grow out of reading Ayn Rand as a high school freshman. Weird.

    1. This is the first time I’ve heard someone say that Ayn Rand is for high schoolers! I need to write this down–I may never hear it again!

    2. Mike C., she is a better novelist than you.
      It’s nice to know you are so tolerant of people who don’t want all government, all-the-time, in every hole like you do.

    3. spot on re: rand not being a (very) interesting 20th century figure.
      and spot on re: her literary bona fides, although i must confess that i’ve never read any of her books cover-to-cover. i just don’t have the intestinal fortitude to power thru page after page of reductionist claptrap.
      OTOH, while i’ve read enough of her work to stand firm in these judgments about her novelistic and literary merits, i must admit that some of my extreme hostility towards rand’s work might — truth be told — be rooted in what mr. wilkinson identifies as rand’s critics’ tendency to conflate her views with those of her (MANY) confused, sychophantic, pseudo-libertarian devotees. i got through a quarter century w/o picking up atlas shrugged, succumbing only after the millionth time a conservative friend/colleague raved about what a masterpiece it is, how full it is of sparkling, ephiphany-inducing insights, and how it changed their political development (if not their lives). these friends + colleagues would make absurd claims about how high she ranked in the pantheon of 20th cent. novelists/writers/journalists.
      the ridiculousness of these ill-informed judgments was made all the more evident by subsequent questions put to these friends’ + colleagues’ re: other great modern novelists/writers/journalists whom i had read — and whose work was foreign to many of my rand-boosting friends. had they read any of the great late 20th cent. novelists — updike? no. mailer? no. bellow? no. roth? no. had they read any of the ‘new journalists’ — hs thompson, gay talese, tom wolfe? no, no, and no. AND YET: these poorly read recommenders were so adamant in their authoritative declarations of rand’s genius and greatness. it baffles.

      1. I’ve read Updike, Mailer, Bellow, Roth, Thompson, Talese, and Tom Wolfe. Only two of those writers are worth reading at all – Thompson and Wolfe. Some of Mailer’s nonfiction is interesting. Ditto Updike. Bellow and Roth are mediocrities. The idea of someone like Bellow winning an important literary prize like the Nobel is utterly absurd. Rand is a better and more important writer than any of those on your list.

  9. Rand lionized wealth derived from providing a good or a service that has value to other members of society. However, much “wealth” is nowadays not linked to a good or a service or an asset. This is evidenced by the growth of derivatives, hedge funds, and the like. These are vehicles for creating money from other money without any link to true intellectual progress; I call it “capitalism run amok”.

    1. Mr. Baker,
      Please explain how derivatives and hedge funds and “the like” create money from other money. And then explain how this is “capitalism run amok”. By the way, you do not need to put quotes around your own quotation.

  10. curious is spot on. We can agree that Rand does not think that money *necessarily* tracks virtue in our world, but she clearly believes it *does* track virtue when certain conditions are satisfied. Rand fails to adequately describe these conditions and is content to summarize them via the lazy, impossibly black-and-white constructs of her characters. More accurately, she *needs* this improbable contrast in order to prop up her hardline conclusions.
    To say that many Rand followers misinterpret her work is both accurate and misleading: of course they identify themselves as Galtian even when their own achievements do not warrant it, and of course Rand intended them to. Where else in the “Atlas world,” if they don’t reject it outright, should readers place themselves? There is no grey area, for either aspiration or moral leniency.
    The key to understanding Rand is not to note the similarities between the “Atlas world” and our own, but the omissions. While superficially alike, the “Atlas world” harbors mostly two kinds of people: despicable know-nothings in a damned cesspool (jump in, if you dare!) and enlightened heroes who like to hang out with each other and make lots of money (door’s open!). Is it any wonder that objectivism provides cover for so many hollow souls?

    1. There were plenty of characters who were represented as in between the two factions you describe. Dagney Taggart and Hank Rearden spend nearly the entire novel torn between a sense of obligation for one and admiration for the other. Further, there are characters in the book who are described as a bit less than heroic in ability but still recognize and cherish the heroic abilities of the protagonists of the book.

      1. I said “mostly,” but what happens to these “tweeners”? Do they get to hang out with the rich and interesting people in Galt’s amusement park? Does anyone aspire to be *them*? Rand’s direction to her readers is clear.

  11. Excellent response to Chait’s smear-piece. Interesting take of Rand’s benevolent universe premise. However, I this idea is more evident in passages like Rand’s description of Halley’s Concerto, or the flashbacks to Dagny’s childhood, than in her happy endings.
    Thank you for the post, Will.

  12. The author of this blog post says that Rand considered the state of capitalism to be in a highly imperfect state back when she wrote her books, and probably consider it so now–with wealth not going to the deserving (necessarily) and a mix of public and private interests jointly governing the economy with the attendant corrupting influences.
    The fact is that Rand never pointed to any point in history when it was not thus. And I don’t think anyone else can either.
    This brings up the most obvious and dismantling critique of her and her followers: Her view of perfect capitalism (or whatever you wanted to call her view of the way she thought things ought to be) is an abstract fantasy — never existed and never will.
    I suspect that that has to do with human nature and I suspect it is the same reason marxism can’t work: society reflects the imperfections of people.
    Given that, attempting to shape political policy or even views on current political problems, on this type of abstract fantasy that can’t exist isn’t just counterproductive, its probably harmful.
    oh, and as a sidenote it does make people pushing Randism look ridiculous and self admiring, as Chait pretty accurately depicts…….

  13. Very interesting (and surprising) take on Rand, Will.
    I must confess that I’ve never read any of her stuff, apart from maybe in excerpt, but know of her ideas at second hand. Most of what is attributed to her seemed fairly inane to me. Her votarists made claims that were greatly at odds with real world facts. Ironically, I thought her followers could be easily countered by many of the same points you say constitute her true criticism – namely, that the distinguishing mark of modern capitalist society is the friendly alliance between the state (chief bugaboo in the libertarian playbook) and influential entities from the business sector. And that the real game-changers, the real difference makers often go unawarded in this misbegotten arrangement.
    It’s often the intellectual labors of multiple individuals (e.g. scientists, engineers, etc.), over many generations and in joint effort, that fuel technological advancement, which is the basis for increasing productivity and, in turn, greater prosperity. It’s really this advancement that enrich modern corporations, not just the relatively modest contributions from business leaders and executives, who ultimately collect the large emoluments.
    If this is more or less Rand’s true lament, I suppose I stand four-square with her. But I have to say again that I’ve never heard anyone give a reading of Rand’s work like you.

  14. Great ideas, start-ups, products and companies begin with a great vision. That great vision comes from an individual. That’s what I take from Rand. While it is true that much of technology is perfected by groups, it is individuals who possess the vision that gets the ball rolling. Committees and boards spend much of their time copying (and diluting) what currently sells. Great vision doesn’t compromise.

  15. “quick read of Atlas Shrugged”
    “I have never seen those two phrases used in the same sentence before. Well done!”
    I dunno. Interesting thought experiment. Imagine a speed-reader a la Woody Allen: “I’m a speed-reader. I just finished ‘War and Peace’. “Oh, what was it about?” “Russia.”
    Now, “I’m a speed-reader. I just finished ‘Atlas Shrugged’. “Oh, what was it about?”

      1. Haha, this is more true than you might think. I recall several years ago listening to Glen Beck on the radio and him discussing Amtrak. His advice: read Atlas Shrugged. As if the main point was about the downside of public transportation.

  16. But the fact that Rand’s admirers can’t understand [her?] books doesn’t speak to what the books actually say.
    I’m just going to leave that there and let it speak for itself. But I think we may be in the presence of a true scholar.

  17. Correcting some factual details — Chait’s no more meticulous factually than he is interpretively.
    “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.)”
    Although, according to Barbara Branden, in The Passion of Ayn Rand, pg. 72, Rand never carried through on her declaration to her aunt Minna, “When I make a lot of money, I’m going to get you a Rolls-Royce,” she remained grateful for her Chicago relatives’ help, and there’s no indication that either she or the family thought of their help as “loans.”
    The description of her as “never speaking to her Chicago family again” is flat-out false, according to Barbara’s account. As well as corresponding with them for years — albeit with increasing infrequency and eventual cessation — she saw members of the family when they visited Los Angeles or later New York and when she gave a lecture in Chicago. (She sent them tickets and they attended. I suppose that would have been the McCormick Place lecture in Fall ’63.) Also on the occasion of Burton Stone’s death she attended the funeral. (Burton Stone was a cousin, Aunt Anna’s son; he greatly admired Ayn and was interested in her philosophy. She remained in touch specifically with him until his death.)

    “Sex and romance loomed unusually large in Rand’s worldview. Objectivism taught that intellectual parity is the sole legitimate basis for romantic or sexual attraction.”
    No, it didn’t.
    “Coincidentally enough, this doctrine cleared the way for Rand–a woman possessed of looks that could be charitably described as unusual, along with abysmal personal hygiene and grooming habits–to seduce young men in her orbit. Rand […] persuaded Branden, who was twenty-five years her junior, to undertake a long-term sexual relationship with her […].”
    Branden initiated the affair — see his own account. Where does Chait get the plural (“young men”)? Or the “abysmal personal hygiene”? There’s no indication in either of the Brandens’ accounts of poor *hygiene*, although there is of inattention to grooming. The latter is a characteristic shared by a lot of people who are absorbed in intellectual work. As to her “looks,” there are photos. Chait makes her sound like an eye-sore.
    He similarly goes overboard in his description of the “cult” atmosphere.

    “Rand called her doctrine ‘Objectivism,’ and it eventually expanded well beyond politics and economics to psychology, culture, science (she considered the entire field of physics ‘corrupt’), and sundry other fields.”
    Rand didn’t claim to dictate the contents of science, if that’s what he means. The statement about physics is incorrect. She thought that Kantian influence was corrupting theoretic developments in specifically 20th-century physics, though she didn’t know enough physics to provide demonstration. There are only hints of her views on physics in her writings. My primary source on that issue is some conversations she had with my husband, who’s a physicist.
    What “sundry other fields” does he mean? Art, yes. Anything else?
    “Objectivism was premised on the absolute centrality of logic to all human endeavors. Emotion and taste had no place.”
    Has Chait actually read her work?

  18. Joely: “Where else in the “Atlas world,” if they don’t reject it outright, should readers place themselves?”
    Precisely. If one takes a favourable view of Atlas Shrugged, one will identify with the heroes. Otherwise, you’re out of luck. Rand has constructed her moral universe in such a way that there are only two possible responses: yes or no.
    Anyone looking for constructive engagement from a critical standpoint will be disappointed because by definition they will be cast into the ‘bad’ camp.
    It’s little wonder that Rand’s conservative readers can easily fall into a way of thinking that sees the United States as “…divided into two classes – the hard-working, productive elite, and the indolent masses leeching off their labor…” to quote Chait. Hands up those who volunteer for the leech label.
    So whether their fortune is great or small, the reader who takes a favourable view of Atlas Shrugged will almost inevitably identify with one of the heroes, and will adopt the heroes’ views about the virtue of productive effort and its rewards.
    And that effort will be theirs, not someone else’s, and therefore the reward will be theirs and theirs alone.

  19. Will, you write that Rand is one of the most interesting and influential intellectual figures of the 20th century. On what basis? For all that I can see, Rand was very influential, but her influence was closer to that of a self-help author than that of a philosopher or social theorist. I can’t tell you what she added to the intellectual landscape of the 20th century.
    I’m not going to actively argue that her ideas were bad–I don’t pretend to know enough about them to say that. The problem is that even people who claim to admire her never seem to mention any particular ideas, or even better, arguments that I should consider. So she was for capitalism and selfishness. So are many people. What distinguishes her? Why should I investigate her ideas? Is there some phenomenon (in the broadest sense possible) that she helps us understand?
    I did search for Rand on your website, in hopes that I could find what you take from her. But I came up empty-handed. In contrast, if I look for Hayek, I find specific ideas of his that you mention and use. Moreover, it’s clear why those ideas matter.
    I’m not asking you to prove to my satisfaction that Rand was right. Just to explain why she so much as mattered as an intellectual figure.

  20. Chait writes, “Let us begin with the premise that wealth represents a sign of personal virtue – thrift, hard work, and the rest – and poverty the lack thereof.”
    I agree with Will that this is an incorrect interpretation, but the hardcore Randians over at ARI do encourage some simple-minded thinking along these lines. I recall seeing a poster for the Atlas Shrugged essay contest several years back. It was aimed at business students. The prompt was something like, Explain and defend Rand’s idea that “it is moral to make money.” I remember thinking, “Did she ever really put it like that?”

    1. “Let us begin with the premise that wealth represents a sign of personal virtue – thrift, hard work, and the rest – and poverty the lack thereof.” – I think one could say whealth is positively correlated with “personal virtue” tough (caveat: I have not read Ayn Rand, I’m just guessing what it means to her), especially wealth from non-huge fortunes made by people from modest backgrounds (who aren’t lawyers or into finance, not that lots of people that do law/finance aren’t essential to capitalism)…

  21. Nice article Will,
    Just want to first say I have enjoyed your contributions to bloggingheads. I’m a fan of Mr Wright and his site and have started looking for your contributions. That has led me to this blog of yours.
    You make some excellent points about Mr Chaits article on Ms Rand but it seems to me that he is doing what everyone does when reviewing something they disagree with. Some may want a dispassioned analysis and I’m sure there are some out there but when someone with a position is analyzing something fundamentally different they will tend to write something along the lines of Mr Chaits piece. I dont think Mr Chait hides his…………..ideology , if you will, nor does he misquote or cram words into Ms Rands mouth.
    When the president says he wants to “hold insurance companies responsible for their actions”, many hear him saying “I’m gonna take their profits and GIVE them to undeserving poor people and illegal immigrants” , while others hear “I’m gonna try and eliminate the perverse incentive of profiting by denying health care payments to those who thought they had paid for insurance” This is just our meta analysis working and we all do it with a different algorithm.
    One last comment to the folks (I’ve seen a few here in the comments) who take todays environment and compare it to the world in Atlas Shrugged; The John Galts were HERE when this all went down. They didnt leave first. The captains of industry were complicit and in many instances leading the way……down.

  22. “Ayn Rand is one of America’s great mysteries. She was an amphetamine-addicted author of sub-Dan Brown potboilers, who in her spare time wrote lavish torrents of praise for serial killers and the Bernie Madoff-style embezzlers of her day. She opposed democracy on the grounds that “the masses”—her readers—were “lice” and “parasites” who scarcely deserved to live. Yet she remains one of the most popular writers in the United States, still selling 800,000 books a year from beyond the grave. She regularly tops any list of books that Americans say have most influenced them. Since the great crash of 2008, her writing has had another Benzedrine rush, as Rush Limbaugh hails her as a prophetess. With her assertions that government is “evil” and selfishness is “the only virtue,” she is the patron saint of the tea-partiers and the death panel doomsters. So how did this little Russian bomb of pure immorality in a black wig become an American icon?”
    From “How Ayn Rand Became an American IconThe perverse allure of a damaged woman”.
    By Johann Hari (Slate).

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