Ayn Rand and Approximate Thinking?
Many people complain about the simplistic (and sometimes infantile) nature of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”… Still, the book is only less successful (in terms of distribution) than the bible. What explains this? I argue that it is the conflation of identities and political ideologies with ideas and thought.
Ultimately, laziness and approximate thinking are what made John Galt great! This is really the secret behind Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”.
Ayn Rand’s books spark many discussions, and they are distributed (for free, and otherwise) widely. Some surveys place her most important book, Atlas Shrugged, as “the second most influential” book (after the Bible). (1)
Disclaimer: I didn’t read the book Atlas Shrugged, but rather watched the three films (2). I am a hungry reader in general, but I’m stingy with time. Atlas Shrugged (~1000 pages) seemed too heavy a load, especially after reading Anthem.
The below cartoon (smbc-comics.com) that a friend forwarded last month captures my sentiment accurately.
The Book’s (Film’s) Big Idea
The big idea of “Atlas Shrugged” is that the really creative, rational, and hard-working individuals (men of the mind) in society can stop the wheels of civilization if they stopped working.
Everything, after all, depends on their efforts, dedication, and genius, and the others are either too lazy or too inconsequential. Society drains the energy of its most productive members and abuses their sacrifices, so what will happen if they just disappear (into a mountain) and go on strike?
Atlas – who carries the world on his shoulders – can shrug… what would happen to all the parasitic blood-suckers then?
You can watch the film easily online (https://www.atlasshruggedmovie.com/watch-now) and might even get it or the book for free, depending on where you are. (of course… money is no issue among friends).
There might be some (faint) logic in the premise, but the story and the events are very problematic. The major theme – I would say – is not “objectivism” (Ayn Rand’s philosophy, which she uses this book to introduce), but an unbearable conflationism* of many different concepts and ideas.
It isn’t really clear (to the author, or to us, the audience) if the wondrous “John Galts” (Atlases, Leaders, Creators, …) of society are actually inventors or innovators, hard workers or good managers, scientists or leaders. This is because the lines between these different functions have been blurred by (for) the writer.
A (somehow rudimentary) understanding of how organizations are managed, how innovations happen, and how systems of work and production interact could have saved the world a lot of confusion (and twitter many threads).
True leaders don’t just “invent a metal,” but work with different groups of people to achieve progress. It is unlikely that if they run away to some mountain, they can create a utopia with other like-minded Galts…
Productivity and innovations happen within systems. Geniuses are very important to progress, but to assume that these geniuses of Ayn Rand (business leaders, mostly) are actually the geniuses she thinks they are (inventors, leaders, and movers of civilization), or that they can function on their own and create their own utopia is contrary even to the likely reason for their success (working and cooperating with others).
Infantile but Successful – Why ?
Some of the logical mistakes of the story are really infantile, and I invite the reader to sample the movies. I admit that I was a bit too annoyed when they went into the magic place inhabited fully by talented people, to find out that that place had dishes, houses, glasses, and cars (who made these mundane things, in an island of John Galts?).
The discussion of the book’s style or its representative validity isn’t my point. My aim is to comment on the usual misattribution of outcomes to specific causes (e.g. person “X” succeeded because he is a genius hard-worker), and the reduction of systems to individual agents (e.g. person “Y” built a rail-road): both are symptoms of dark approximations.
This is obvious. In Fuzzy on the Dark Side, I argue that when faced with complexity and too many unknowns (what makes success? why do some societies prosper), many will seek the comforts of simplification. These simplifications happen via certain reductions where passions and defending a certain self-image or identity replace clear thinking…
So, the (apparent) market success of the book (and others) in terms of distribution and readership is vastly disproportionate to its entertainment or intellectual quality.(3)
This is because the book is more a political statement than a book, and in that sense, the conflation and reductionism make perfect sense (I discuss this in detail on intentional use of conflation in political discourse).
Ayn Rand’s Approximate Thinking confuses:
- Inventors and Innovators
- Leaders and Makers
- Technicians, Alliances, and Complex Systems
- Social & Political Dynamics (cooperation, negotiation, power balances, …)
The promoters and fanatics of these writings confuse their own need to defend their self-image (and illusions of self-making sometimes) with clear and logical arguments, even with minimal validity.
The dark side is behind half the story here.
This discussion is an (edited) excerpt from “The Follies: Dark Outcomes” chapter in “Fuzzy on the Dark Side: Approximate Thinking, and how the mists of creativity can become a prison of illusion”.
Elsewhere on this blog, I’ve discussed this topic from another angle. Is success the result of luck, hard work, or effort, and why does this discussion make people angry?
* I know… I know… that’s not even a word.
(1) Around 4.5 million free copies of the book were distributed for free by 2020 by the Ayn Rand Institute (https://issuu.com/aynrandinstitute/docs/237692_aynrand_r2_proof). For more details refer to Doherty (2007).
(2) Full disclosure: Watched at 1.25x, and it was still a bit too slow. Also: movies are almost never a good replacement for a book
(3) Ayn Rand is reported to have said that “the only philosopher to have influenced her thinking was Aristotle,” and I –automatically – thought how his assertion that women have fewer teeth was quite John-Galtian