Happy Rand Day!

Today is Ayn Rand's 100th birthday. Bryan Caplan, who is smarter than you are, defends Rand's legacy at the EconLog. I especially like this bit:

Yes, many of her philosophical arguments are question-begging. Shocking… unless you've read the work of Descartes, Locke, Kant, or Mill. They all make plenty of embarrassingly bad arguments. If you don't want to dismiss their whole subject matter, you've got to judge philosophers based on their best work and/or the novel questions they raise. And by that standard, Rand more than holds her own.

Right on. Bryan mentions that he wouldn't be a professor if it wasn't for Rand. I certainly wouldn't have studied philosophy (and wouldn't be working at Cato) if Rand hadn't convinced me that philosophy really matters. But more than that, Rand more than anyone I can think of, makes philosophy seem downright romantic. John Galt's the bomb not just because he solves the problem of energy scarcity, or engineers the collapse of a parasitic corporate welfare state, but because he's a philosopher!
I think Tyler's right about what you really learn from Rand, even if you've given up on most of her particular arguments:

The true take-away message is a reaffirmation of how the enormous productive powers of capitalism — the greatest force for human good ever achieved — rely on the driving human desire to be excellent. I don't know of any better celebration of that combination of forces.

Rand teaches a deep-seated reverence for innovation and discovery, and a heightened sensitivity to the dark motives that often underlie appeals to the commonweal. After reading Rand, you cannot live in a capitalist order and fail to appreciate the great glorious gift of innovation driven by the self-interested pursuit of excellence and wealth. And you cannot live in DC, the town of ten thousand Mouches, and fail to see daily how the fuel of resentment, parasitic avarice, and powerlust blazes in the rhetoric of shared sacrifice and fires the black engines of the state.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

10 thoughts

  1. Thank you so much for responding to that truly stupid argument. When he complained about people in favor of performance enhancers as being reductionists, I laughed out loud. Then I cried at the thought of all the people that would read him uncritically because of Andrew. The resulting depression was too extreme. I simply couldn’t gather up the energy to point out the many, many problems with the post. I am grateful someone else did. Cheers.

  2. Thanks for this much-needed rebuttal. I think the mysticism of Easter weekend must have momentarily dulled Andrew’s usual intellectual acuity, making him more susceptible to lofty-sounding, natural law-type rubbish arguments. Barnard’s article reminded me very much of my med school bioethics course, taught by a Dominican priest known to his students as Father O’Pinion. When I got to the end of the article, I was surprised to see that he’s an associate professor of philosophy, but when I read the bit about the “Institute for Intellectual Discipleship,” it all started to make sense.

  3. I have to agree with the crowd here that Barnard’s argument isn’t really that strong. However, I think there is something to be said for acting with a little more caution when it comes to ‘cognitive enhancement.’ As a neuroscientist, not that that necessarily qualifies me as an authority, I have to tell you that we don’t have any freaking clue how our brains really work and even less about how all of these various substances might affect the long-term functioning of the organic circuitry that gives us the ability to think in the first place. Everything you put into your body can literally alter the phsical structure of your brain–as Will points out even a balanced diet could be called a ‘cognitive enhancer.’ Sure coffee (or the other worn-out example, Ritalin) is great, but are you sure that it’s not selectively enhancing some mental processes at the expense of others, and is your brain going to be plastic enough to regain them later on if need be after years of underuse?
    I don’t really have a problem with the idea of ‘cognitive enhancement’, but with how we can, again, ‘responsibly’ put it into practice. Of course it would be great to have a better memory for facts, or a greater working memory load, or a heightened ability to recognize patterns, or a better integration of auditory and visual input, or a more refined ability to direct my attention. Due to our brains’ remarkable plasticity, humans have always had a way to go about doing this–training and repetition, which we’ve formalized with schools. The use of pharmaceuticals as cognitive enhancers is–at this point–merely to accelerate this learning process. Will it always be such?
    For me, the main problem with the use of drugs for cognitive enhancement, aside from our utter ignorance of their full effects, is not the drugs themselves but our education system. Depending on your family and cultural upbringing, there are many ways we define success in school, but our current system holds test scores up as the ultimate measure, and the use of standardized testing is only growing. You can go elsewhere for a full take-down of the sheer idiocy of this, but we’ve made a single way of thinking the “best” way for an entire generation. And then there’s the ever-increasing pressure to “succeed,” get into the “right” college, and the valuation of certain careers (law, medicine–thankfully finance may not be on the list anymore) well above others. Throw the additional selecting pressure of long-term use of cognitive enhancing drugs into this mess and to me it’s a recipe for a generation of homogeneous thinkers. Will they still retain that most powerful of human cognitive abilities that allowed us to populate the entire planet and flourish in the face of all its varied and constantly changing dangers–creativity?

    1. This is a great post. I’m very glad this has been said.
      You make a better arguement than Bernard, but ultimately a healthy, informed adult should be able to make these choices for themselves. Creativity may be useful for some professions and not for others, and if these drugs surpress creativity (which I am not convinced of) then someone can choose not to use them.
      If I have 5 units of work to do today and 10 units of time to do it, and normally I finish one unit work/unit time, then I have 5 units of time to persue other creative activities. If these drugs help me complete one unit work in 0.5 units time, that leaves much more time to persue these these. Assuming one works because they have to (not because they want or enjoy it) as I do, thats a win in my book.

      1. Totally. Adults absolutely should be able to make these choices for themselves. What I’m worried about here, though, are the high school kids who don’t have the same freedoms and have other parental and societal pressures to deal with. Also, their brains are still going through rapid developmental changes and drugs like these could potentially interfere with those normal processes, affecting them later in life.
        Creativity is basically having mental flexibility–being able to imagine more than one way to do something. When you’re conditioning yourself (even without drugs) to think in one particular mode, say every day at work, then you’re strengthening those pathways and not spending time strengthening others. Having free time is great, but how are you going to spend it if your creative pathways are so under-utilized?
        In any case, creativity was just one example of a way of thinking that could potentially be sacrificed for, say, fact memory. There are certainly other mental faculties that could be adversely affected, or maybe there are none. The point is that we really don’t know enough, either about the drugs or about the brain to really have make an informed decision.

  4. I read this thing and thought it was just as full of holes in logic as you did. I was going to write something up, but you did a much better job summarizing my critiques than I ever could. Nicely done!
    The one thing I would add is that this line was also particularly bad: “And this would be the case even if one conceded what is most assuredly dubious—namely, that public policy could be crafted and enforced so as to minimize the deleterious effects of the widespread distribution and use of such drugs.”
    As if the current public policy of making them illegal is effective in stopping usage and doesn’t have the deleterious effect of turning many otherwise law abiding citizens into outlaws purchasing drugs of unknown quality over the internet. Cough, nubrain.com, cough.

  5. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t want to better ourselves. If natural evolution is so slow, maybe we should try to upgrade ourselves. The time will come when science and medicine will advance enough to eliminate all negative side effects and everybody will be able to buy steroids online or anti aging hormones with no risk. There are a lot of moral arguments against doing that but the truth is, anyone wants a longer life, a better body and mind.

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