Paul Krugman, in an August 23 column (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/24/opinion/krugman-galt-gold-and-god.html?_r=1&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss), reminds us of Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s devotion to the philosophy of Ayn Rand. While I generally agree with Krugman, whose column generally is one of the most effective antidotes to the Economism Scam from someone with established economics credentials, I’ll have to object a bit to his treatment of this topic. He takes issue with Ryan for getting his policy ideas from an “unrealistic fantasy novel,” to wit, Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
The problem with the ideas of Ayn Rand is not that she chose to write them up in the form of a novel. Some very good philosophers have done this, and if more philosophers did so, philosophy would be a lot more fun to read. The problem is rather with Rand’s ideas themselves, not how she expressed them.
Some people appear to be attracted to a philosophy that proclaims that indifference to the suffering of others is a sign of strength, and compassion and concern for others is a sign of weakness, and that the rule of the world is that the strong win out. In the late nineteenth century, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) had theories that included such beliefs. In the middle twentieth century, the work of Ayn Rand (1905-1982), who studied Nietzsche, has filled a similar role, and it has been noted how many political leaders today who espouse economism-friendly beliefs appear to be devoted to Rand’s thinking. (See for example http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/04/10/war-on-the-weak.html.) Philosophical ideas of this sort appear to promote a sort of institutionalization of cruelty, a way of telling everyone in society that being cruel is what is expected and approved of.
Perhaps my deepest reason for opposing economism is that it seems to me to be this sort of rationalization of cruelty. It claims to have access to infallible laws of God or of nature (or both) that tell us that certain sorts of suffering and misfortune are normal, expected, and inevitable, and that it is folly to imagine that we could or should do anything about it. Anyone who persists in feeling compassion in the face of this knowledge is either weak or irrational, and their thoughts can be dismissed as socially irrelevant.
Some people apparently find a world like that an attractive place in which to live. I strongly dissent. That’s what’s wrong with the Republican vision of the world—not that Paul Ryan reads fantasy novels.