Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Should You Follow Ayn Rand?

Like most Gurus, Ayn Rand had some pretty wacky ideas, beginning with the spelling of her made-up name.

One thing about getting an Engineering Degree is that you miss a lot of the aspects of a liberal arts education. Many young people, in college, take up Ayn Rand, usually in their Sophomore year, as part of a reading assignment for class - Atlas Shrugged, or The Fountainhead.

And some folks take her pro-corporate, pro-individualism, pro-capitalism message to heart. Others outgrow it very quickly.

A few years back, I had a nice discussion with a friend who was a Rand enthusiast. Ayn Rand had been on the periphery of my radar, but I never got into the philosophy. I tried to read Atlas Shrugged once, but it was like driving a snowplow through a pile of bricks. I kept thinking to myself, "Gee, I must not be getting this, as this book doesn't seem all that great. The characters are flat and two-dimensional, the dialog embarrassingly juvenile, and she beats you over the head with her political views."

Years later I re-read the book and some of the criticisms of her and her works and realized that I was in fact "getting it" with regard to Atlas Shrugged. It is a boring soap opera about capitalism.

This is not to say her books don't make some points. The scene, early on in the book where Hank Reardon arrives home after his first pouring of his new Reardon steel, echoed events in my own life. His wife and relatives and hanger-on friends, are all sitting around, drinking his cocktails and eating his food, and making fun of his business. I've seen this happen before myself, but I chalk it up to nervousness and insecurity, not to a political movement to discredit capitalism. But it was one of the more compelling scenes in the book, and her portrayal of boorish liberalism and weak thinking was, in that scene, right on target.

Other parts of the book, including the overall plot about industrialists going on strike and then retreating to a hippie-like Shangra-La commune in the Colorado Rockies, well, they were a little far-fetched. And the idea of industrialists working together in a commune-like environment sort of undercut the principle message promoting capitalism. Is the answer to socialism in government going to be private communism? Rand diffuses her own arguments here.

But even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Many of the issues and themes raised by Rand are certainly worth a lively discussion and contemplation. But, unfortunately, Rand, like many gurus out there, set herself up later in life as a cult-like figure, and even expelled members of her inner circle, discrediting her own ideas about individualism. Individualism for some, but her followers were to be sheep. Today, more than one group of people claim to bear the mantle of Rand, although I am not sure why they would be so eager to do so. I have no desire to be someone Else's sheep. Do you?

And to put it bluntly, the material is dated. Perhaps in the 1930's and 1940's when the labor movement started gaining steam, and perhaps started to engage in the excesses which would inevitably result in its downfall, the propositions raised in Rand's work had some currency. The ideas of limiting competition through legal means, and elevating the common man as the ideal for society were being bandied about, and Rand's work was a reaction to that trend. She pointed out that without the movers and shakers in the world, such as the mythical Hank Reardon, the head of Reardon steel and one of the protagonists of the novel, progress would not occur.

The fact that one of the protagonists is a steel baron is another example of the dated aspect of the material. Perhaps in 1930, the smokey steel mills of Pittsburgh were an example of the apex of capitalism, but today, these mills are gone, and steel-making is view more as a commodity business, except for some high-end specialty steels. A steel baron. How quaint.

And today, the titans of industry are indeed the rock stars that Rand wanted them to be.   Donald Trump has made a second career as an actor portraying a successful businessman.  But more to the point, we laud the Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Warren Buffets of the world as examples of superstar capitalists, who saw opportunities and took advantage of them (never mind whether there is any truth to the story, a good myth is a good myth).

Today, the Republican Party promotes "trickle-down" economics and tax cuts for the rich - and middle class and poor people buy into it, lock, stock, and barrel - and it is likely that very few of these "teabaggers" ever read Rand.  But in effect, they are espousing the philosophy.

So to some extant, she is largely irrelevant, as much of what she predicted in Atlas Shrugged has in fact come true.  The ruling class in this country can "go on strike" and wreck the economy as a warning to those not willing to go along with their political agenda.   "We're too big to fail" they tell us, "Pay us off, or we take the whole country down with us!"  Who is John Galt? I think he worked at Enron and perhaps Lehman Brothers.

But following Randian philosophies is, to me, not worthwhile.   To begin with, I fail to see how obsessing with one person's ideas about capitalism can add to your own personal bottom line.  Even assuming arguendo that all of Rand's theories and concepts were "correct" - how does being a fan of her ideas help you pay down your mortgage or reduce your credit card debt or increase your real wealth?

It doesn't - anymore than following conspiracy theories or pining for the air-powered car or thorium energy does.   Following Randian philosophies and Libertarianism is just another form of externalization of your own internal problems.

The fact that this champion of individualism devolved into a cult-like figure who tolerated no dissent, seems to detract from her message.  As I have noted time and time again in this blog and my related Losing Weight Now blog, following guru advice, whether it is financial, dietary, spiritual, or whatever (and many gurus tend to cover all three bases) is never a good idea.

And yes, I write a lot in this blog on financial matters. But this is merely to discuss, not teach, to understand based on my experiences, how personal finances work, not whether government subsidies for the steel industry are a good idea.

As I have noted in my Beware of Movements posting, becoming obsessed about political movements rarely adds to your personal bottom line - but it does help propel someone Else's political agenda.

So becoming a Randian may be fine and dandy, but ask yourself what it does for your own personal financial situation. If it is just a time-waster, then what is the point?   If you are using it as a crutch or an excuse not to address your personal issues, what is the point?  If you make yourself unpopular and difficult to deal with by spouting off Randian philosophy at cocktail parties, what is the point?

If you don't get that job you applied for, because you spouted off about Ayn Rand during the interview, what's the point?  Making yourself toxic to other people is never a good idea, unless you are in a position in life where you don't need other people.

Blindly following one person's advice is never a good idea. Learn to think for yourself. Be the rugged individualist that Rand espoused.  The true "ideal man" that Rand postulated would not be a follower of Rand, that much is clear to me.