Alan Wolfe: The Ridiculous Rise of Ayn Rand
Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and a professor of political science at Boston College.
...Rand’s “thought,” such as it is, boils down to two propositions. One is that selfishness is the highest of moral virtues. The other is that the masses, above all resentful of success, are parasites living off the hard work of capitalists far superior to them in every way.
Self-interest is a useful concept, while selfishness is not. That, I believe, helps explain why Adam Smith is a first-rate thinker and Ayn Rand is an amateur.
Self-interest makes altruism possible: I can decide to help others, even if in doing so I may be set back financially, because other gains to my self-esteem are important to me. Self-interest requires a nuanced psychology, which is why economists now find themselves investigating all kinds of human behavior and are increasingly interested in how the mind works. Selfishness, by contrast, is not psychologically interesting; Rand’s understanding of human behavior has no room for the complex, the unexpected, or the paradoxical. It is one thing to say, as she frequently did, that altruism is evil; that is a normative position with which one might agree or, I hope, disagree. But to claim that altruism is impossible, an empirical question, is another matter entirely. Any social science, including economics, must be based on a realistic psychology. Rand does not offer one....
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