Chaim Soutine-Portrait of a Mad Woman "La Folle," c. 1919
Ayn Rand is indirectly responsible for the political and economic problems that face the United States at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century. We must, however, view her with at least some degree of compassion, because of the emotional abuse she was the victim of as a child.
Born Alissa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg in 1905, she and her three sisters were despised by her dilettante, aristocratic mother as a child, who told them that she hated children and only kept them out of duty. This disdain of children carried over into Rand's own life, as well as her writings. In one of her interviews with Mike Wallace in the late 1950's, she stated that, "only the strong deserve to be loved." By logical extension, children--who are the weakest of all humans--deserve no love. Certainly this had been Rand's life experience.
I believe that this was the unconscious, emotional center for Ayn Rand's philosophy of selfishness, and was a symptom of her own post traumatic stress disorder. This in turn evolved into a deeply rooted neurosis or character disorder such as narcissism, an inferiority complex, or even being a sociopath.
For someone who claimed to stand for "personal responsibility," she demonstrated little such virtue in her own life. As a teenager, she went to the movies on money earned at a job that her mother and sisters were depending (and that she had agreed to provide) on to eat, according to one biographer. And yet, she felt no guilt in failing to live up to her responsibilities.
I believe this lack of guilt indicates that she was a borderline sociopath, and her "philosophy" was primarily a means to justify her own lack of human empathy or sense of duty to others. Even today, adherents of Rand's Objectivism use it primarily to justify their own self-serving actions.
In a 1957 interview with Mike Wallace, Rand stated she was "the most creative thinker alive." This was at a time when Erich Fromm, Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, Theodor Adorno, Iris Murdoch, Michel Foucault, Simone Beauvoir, John Rawls , and Karl Popper were all in their creative prime, and Carl Jung, Bertrand Russell, and Martin Heidegger were still alive.
Her "philosophy" lacks rigor, and many of its components had been refuted by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason one hundred and fifty years before. She claimed to be influenced only by Aristotle, but her theory of the providers and the parasites is the worst sort of egotistical narcissism, bearing no resemblance to the virtue based morality of Aristotle. This elitist paradigm--going against both the humanist, virtue based moral system of Aristotle and the austere, reason based moral system of Kant--lies at the center of her theory of selfishness. She even succeeds in misunderstanding and violating the precepts of that most elitist of philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche:
"It would be completely unworthy of a more profound spirit to consider mediocrity as such an exception"When the exceptional human being treats the mediocre more tenderly than himself or his peers, this is not mere politeness of the heart--it is simply his duty." (The Antichrist, No. 57; The Portable Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufmann. )
Her concept of identity, pilfered without comprehension from Aristotle, that "A = A," is the worst sort of solipsism, and proves no truth except that she would have been flunked out of any real college philosophy class. Logic in philosophy tests only consistency, not truth. To quote Kant:
"A few axioms postulated in geometry are analytical, and depend on the principle of contradiction. These axioms however, like identical propositions, are meant to serve as links in the chain of method, not as principles. For example, a = a, the whole is equal to itself, or (a+b) > a, the whole is greater than its part. Yet even these principles themselves, although they derive their validity from pure concepts, are only admitted in mathematics because they can be presented in intuition." (Kant's Critique of Pure Reason; Introduction, Part One, Section V.)
Note: Kant said intuition, not demonstrable fact or truth.
When Rand states that "existence = existence," she makes a statement which is easily disputed by such thought problems as that of SchrÃ¶dinger's Cat. It is no way equivalent to Descartes' famous "Cogito, ergo sum." And any Hindu guru or Buddhist monk would ask the simple question (which would completely demolish her assertion): "Are you certain it is not simply maya (illusion)? Very well. Prove it." How do you prove what can only be an intuition?
Perhaps Ayn Rand's greatest weaknesses in attempting to create a coherent, comprehensive philosophy, was her lack of knowledge of history, especially American History. Jennifer Burns, in her biography of Rand, Goddess of the Market , writes that she was "among the first to identify the modern state's often terrifying power and to make it an issue of popular concern." However, Ms. Burns ignores those on the left who preceded Rand in warning of the state's power and its potential for abuse: starting with Montesquieu and continuing with Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Abraham Lincoln, Mikhail Bakunin, Emma Goldman, and I.F. Stone.
In economics as well, Ayn Rand's "anarcho-capitalism" consists more of wishful thinking, than any careful consideration of historical fact. Karl Marx tried (and failed) to construct a fair and rational economic system, based on historical fact as he knew it. Marx at least had the excuses of overestimating the altruism of those who tend to rise to power in a revolutionary system, as well as having no historical precedent in the face of the Industrial Revolution, the end of slavery, and the rise of the machine powered economies. Rand's desired system has no pretensions of fairness, and seems to be nothing more than a modern variant of the feudal system, with the corporate hegemons replacing the barons and princes. She seems completely blind (or uncaring) to the possibility that these unfettered laissez-faire capitalists could represent the creation of a state every bit as terrifying in its power and indifferent (or hostile) to political liberties as she believed the modern political state was.