This review is published on the book´s site on amazon.com. Link provided below.
I was really looking forward to reading this book: a critique of Ayn Rand´s philosophy of religion written by a professional intellectual. Religion is a primitive form of philosophy, and it is a necessary step in the intellectual development of mankind – from believing in gods and the supernatural to a world view based upon observation, facts, proper concept formation, and logic: i.e. a development from faith to reason. Rand has written extensively about this, as have some of her students, and I was hoping that professor Byrd ´s book would provide a perspective that could illuminate this important subject: religion is still with us and dominates some parts of the world (with unfreedom and poverty as an inevitable result). However, religion is not as strong a force in the West as it was in earlier times, especially in the the middle ages, a period largely caused by Christianity, which became a dominant force in the West after around 300 AD. From the Enlightenment, Christianity´s dominant presence was curtailed. Rand, of course, was an atheist and shared the Enlightenment world view: she supported reason, individualism, limited government, rule of law, free trade, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, separation of church and state – this in contrast to the dictatorships that most religionists support.
I was very disappointed by the book. Only a very few pages were dedicated to Rand´s view of religion and its influence, and professor Byrd does not discuss Rand´s main writings about this, most of the book consists of half-truths, out-of-context-quotes, speculative theories presented as uncontroversial facts, and outrageous claims that even an academic should check the validity of before he presented them as facts. There are also a few gaffes that are more amusing than embarrassing; on page 54 ha mentions the economist Ludwig von Hayek, perhaps mixing up classical liberal economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek.
Professor Byrd says early in the book that he «rarely diverged [his] attention outside of her [Rand´s] words … [he] focus[ed] on the primary material written by Rand» (page xii). This is not completely true. Byrd quotes numerous secondary sources, he provides quotes from the hack journalist Gary Weiss, he quotes unreliable biographies by Jennifer Burns and Anne Heller, he quotes people with an obvious axe to grind, and he quotes people with very poor insight in Rand´s corpus. Biographical works by people who knew Rand or had access to sources close to her (works by Jeff Britting, Michael Paxton, Mary Ann Sures, Shoshana Milgram) are not quoted or mentioned (except one out-of-context quote from Britting), quotes from or references to serious Rand scholars like Leonard Peikoff, Harry Binswanger and Tara Smith are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is that almost all of the quotes from Rand herself are from interviews, letters and journal entries published after her death, and not from the works she herself wrote for publication. Of course, in interviews, letters and journal entries not intended for written publication, the reader will not find the polished and exact formulations that one finds in an author´s published works.
I will only give about a dozen or so examples of professor Byrd´s very poor scholarship. Professor Byrd mentions Rand´s comments about John Rawls´ thesis presented in his book A Theory of Justice. Byrd writes: «Rand said: ”let med say that I have not read and do not intend to read the book” before she proceeded to criticize it» (page 110). However, Rand did read a review of the book, and said in the sentence immediately following the sentence professor Byrd quotes: «But since one cannot judge a book by its reviews, please regard the following discussion as the review of a review. Mr Cohen´s [who reviewed the book] remarks deserve attention in their own right» (the complete quote is on page 131 in Rand´s Philosophy: Who Needs It, Bobbs-Merril 1982). I will not speculate as to why professor Byrd did not include these sentences.
Professor Byrd claims that Rand in a quote provided by him on page 65 gave «an idealized reading of American history [that is] absolutely perverse in light of the enslavement of African [Americans] …». (Rand wrote that «The most profound revolutionary achievement of the United States of America was the subordination of society to moral law. The principle of man´s individual rights represented the extension of mortality into the social system …»). Byrd continues: «What is the moral law of private property that allowed human beings to be considered the possession of another, that allowed African children to be bought and sold …». Byrd´s point seems to be that Rand more or less ignored the situation of black people in America: because of the racism that dominated in large parts of America, they were legally and morally regarded not as human beings, but as property: they were slaves. How can a society subordinated to moral law, as Rand said the US was, accept slavery?
However, Byrd ignores these statements from Rand, easily available on the Ayn Rand Lexicon website: «The major victims of such race prejudice as did exist in America were the Negroes. It was a problem originated and perpetuated by the non-capitalist South, though not confined to its boundaries. The persecution of Negroes in the South was and is truly disgraceful. But in the rest of the country, so long as men were free, even that problem was slowly giving way under the pressure of enlightenment and of the white men’s own economic interests. … It was the agrarian, feudal South that maintained slavery. It was the industrial, capitalistic North that wiped it out—as capitalism wiped out slavery and serfdom in the whole civilized world of the nineteenth century». Slavery had existed all over the world for thousands of years, and an entrenched institution like that will not disappear overnight; it will take time –and it was the ideas of the Enlightenment that made slavery disappear. The United States of America were in its founding principles (stated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) explicitly based upon the ideas of the Enlightenment. That does not mean that these ideas immediately were accepted by everybody at once, the spread of ideas takes time.
Also, Rand wrote that «racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage―the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors. Racism claims that the content of a man’s mind (not his cognitive apparatus, but its content) is inherited; that a man’s convictions, values and character are determined before he is born, by physical factors beyond his control. This is the caveman’s version of the doctrine of innate ideas―or of inherited knowledge―which has been thoroughly refuted by philosophy and science. Racism is a doctrine of, by and for brutes. It is a barnyard or stock-farm version of collectivism, appropriate to a mentality that differentiates between various breeds of animals, but not between animals and men».
Byrd accuses Rand of inconsistency/hypocrisy when she used social services when she opposed the existence of these kinds of government programs. Byrd: «For Rand, to know something is «evil» and to nevertheless participate in it makes the individual [Rand] evil as well» (page 140). Byrd is wrong. Rand was forced to pay taxes, and she had therefore every right to use all the services that the government provided with the tax-money that it had taken from the citizens. What was evil was the force used by the government in order to make Rand (and everybody else) pay taxes. In other words, Rand´s part in this evil program was not voluntary, she was forced. Does Byrd mean that Rand should have paid the taxes, but not used the services that the government´s income from the taxes was meant to provide for everybody, including her? Rand even wrote an essay where she discussed exactly this question («A Question of Scholarships»), but Byrd does not mention this.
Byrd repeats the allegation that the intense sexual encounter between Howard and Dominique in The Fountainhead was rape, and quotes Rand saying that it was «rape by engraved invitation»: «In a scene … Dominique becomes the victim of a brutal sexual attack by Roark that Rand described as a «rape by engraved invitation»» (page 160). But it was clearly not rape, as any attentive reader of the novel will understand, and Rand did not mean what Byrd attributes to her. What Rand said after receiving a question about the scene was the following: «IF THAT WAS RAPE, it was rape by engraved invitation» (I have put in capitals the part of the quote that Byrd for some reason omitted). A thorough analysis of the scene and the rape-allegation is to be found in an article by professor Andrew Bernstein in Robert Mayhew´s collection Essays on The Fountainhead.
On page 169, Byrd talks about the idolatry of money that he claims Rand´s ideas imply. But anyone who has read The Fountainhead knows that a Rand hero is not at all motivated by money, he is motivated by the joy of the creative process. Roark often lacks money, but he still declines commissions that will bring him large incomes if the proposed project is not to his liking. It is correct that Francisco in Atlas Shrugged says that «money is the root of all that is good», but every quote has to be understood in its context. The context of this quote really is the whole novel, but I will only provide the following: «»So you think that money is the root of all evil?» said Francisco d’Anconia. «Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?»».
Professor Byrd also quotes other people than Rand and claim that they express Rand´s real views, even if Rand never said anything similar to the quote Byrd provides. Byrd quotes the economist Ludwig von Mises, who in a private letter to Rand about Atlas Shrugged said that: «You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you [the masses] are inferior and all the improvements in your condition you take for granted you owe to the effort of people that are better than you» (page 42).
Rand would never have said anything like this. Also, I don´t think that Mises meant it the way Byrd interprets it: Mises is talking about «better» from the perspective of economic productivity, and then what Mises is saying is true. Rand had great respect for what is usually called the common man, the men and women who work productively to support themselves, their children and their families. She of course did not regard most people, or poor people, as in any way inferior, but claimed, correctly, that some are more productive than others. (She described some people as «looters» and «moochers», but by this she did not mean ordinary people or poor people, she meant some academics, some bureaucrats and some labour union bosses, and she meant adults who think they have a right to be fed, housed and educated by others simply because they exist.)
On page 63, Byrd claims that Rand would «prefer the dictatorship of greed to a true democratic society». But why not let Rand herself explain what kind of political system she wanted, and what she opposed. The system she wanted was capitalism: «Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned. The recognition of individual rights entails the banishment of physical force from human relationships: basically, rights can be violated only by means of force. In a capitalist society, no man or group may initiate the use of physical force against others. The only function of the government, in such a society, is the task of protecting man’s rights, i.e., the task of protecting him from physical force; the government acts as the agent of man’s right of self-defense, and may use force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use…». She opposed majority rule, i.e. democracy: «“Democratic” in its original meaning [refers to] unlimited majority rule … a social system in which one’s work, one’s property, one’s mind, and one’s life are at the mercy of any gang that may muster the vote of a majority at any moment for any purpose.» (Both quotes are from the Ayn Rand Lexicon website).
It seems as if Byrd does not understand what political freedom is. He writes: «For Rand, one cannot be truly free, neither intellectually or politically, if one lives an irrational life …» (page 17). This is completely wrong. One is (politically) free if one is not subject to initiation of force by the government (and if the government makes society safe from criminals). So, altruists and collectivists and religionists are free if they live in a society where the government does not initiate force against them (or anyone else). However, Rand would say that altruists and collectivists and religionists cannot be truly happy, not even in a free society – because people who follow ideologies like these will not be able to fully understand reality, and therefore, they will not be able to make good choices in their lives.
On page 39, Byrd claims that Rand believed John F. Kennedy to be a fascist, and thinks that Rand is completely wrong. What she said – in a letter to her publisher about a talk with the title «The Fascist New Frontier», in which she discussed some of the policies of the Kennedy-administration – was that «The theme [of the talk] … is an ideological critique of the Kennedy-administration: my central point is to demonstrate that contrary to the popular illusion, the Kennedy administration´s ideology is not socialistic, but fascistic» (Rand´s italics, the quote is from Letters of Ayn Rand, page 618). An academic should know that fascism in politics implies that property rights are given lip service, but are not upheld in practice. Rand was not the only one who observed that the Kennedy administration´s policies contained fascistic elements; economist Milton Friedman, who later was awarded a Nobel prize in economics, made a similar observation. A dictionary definition of fascism includes the following: «[fascism is] a governmental system with strong centralized power … controlling all affairs of the nation (industrial, commercial, etc.) …» (The American College Dictionary, New York: Random House, 1957). This correctly described some of the Kennedy administration´s policies. I wish to add that the definition also included the following «…permitting no opposition or criticism», which of course did not apply to the Kennedy administration´s policies.
Byrd writes that Rand «was not concerned with the poor, the powerless, the victims of history …». This is the opposite of the truth. Her view was that wealth is a good thing, that only respect for property rights and a free, unregulated economy – i.e. laissez-faire-capitalism – can produce wealth; and that those who benefit the most from capitalism are ordinary people. Increasing wealth is a result of the accumulation of capital, and this is only possible over time if property rights are respected in full. This important point is worth an extensive quote from Rand (from Galt´s speech):
«When you live in a rational society, where men are free to trade, you receive an incalculable bonus: the material value of your work is determined not only by your effort, but by the effort of the best productive minds who exist in the world around you. When you work in a modern factory, you are paid, not only for your labor, but for all the productive genius which has made that factory possible: for the work of the industrialist who built it, for the work of the investor who saved the money to risk on the untried and the new, for the work of the engineer who designed the machines of which you are pushing the levers, for the work of the inventor who created the product which you spend your time on making, for the work of the scientist who discovered the laws that went into the making of that product, for the work of the philosopher who taught men how to think and whom you spend your time denouncing. The machine, the frozen form of a living intelligence, is the power that expands the potential of your life by raising the productivity of your time. If you worked as a blacksmith in the mystics’ Middle Ages, the whole of your earning capacity would consist of an iron bar produced by your hands in days and days of effort. How many tons of rail do you produce per day if you work for Hank Rearden? Would you dare to claim that the size of your pay check was created solely by your physical labor and that those rails were the product of your muscles? The standard of living of that blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from [capitalists and entrepreneurs like] Hank Rearden.»
People like professor Byrd believe that the only way to raise the living standard of ordinary people, and help the poor, is to tax the rich, and with the money thus acquired the state can provide «free» education, health services and pensions, etc. to everybody. But in a system like this, the quality of the state run services will decline, the taxes will increase, resourceful people will move to countries with lower taxes, or into fields which are less regulated by the government (Rand described this as a «drain of brains»), and some of the people who can live somewhat comfortably on government handouts without working will lose incentives to work. We have seen this development in all socialist countries, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in all welfare states. Rand described this development in the story of The Twentieth Century Motor Factory in Atlas Shrugged, but is seems that professor Byrd skipped that part of the book.
Byrd writes about the racism that was widespread in the USA, and supports initiation of force by the government in order to end racism. Rand never supported initiation of force by anyone, not even by the government, and thus opposed all laws that restricts individual freedom. Freedom includes the right for all individuals to do things that others consider bad or immoral, as long at these actions do not involve initiation of force. If a bigot does not want to hire people who have a skin color he does not like, he has every right not to hire them. Byrd thinks this is very wrong, he thinks that bigots and other bad people should not have the right to freedom – or, more correct, professor Byrd seems to think that nobody deserves or needs freedom (freedom is the right for every man and woman to use his or her body, income and property in any peaceful way he or she chooses).
As do some commentators, professor Byrd blames the financial crisis of 2008 on deregulation and greedy bankers, and that both greed and deregulation were caused by the increasing influence of Rand´s ideas in the culture. But to say that the bankers of the early 2000s were more greedy than they were 20 or 50 years before, is a stretch. Why greed should cause economic crises is never really explained, and that the extent of the deregulation that happened were much closer to non-existent or minuscule than to the complete elimination of all regulation that Rand wanted, is obvious. (And as long as one tries to satisfy one´s greed by peaceful, productive activity, I can´t see that there is anything wrong with that.)
What was the cause of the crisis? There were not only one cause, the crisis was caused by a series of bad policy decisions. One of them was president Bush´s «weak dollar»-policy in the early 2000s, which resulted in the dollar losing much of its value. The price of gold, which is an important economic indicator, increased in this period (2001 to 2008) from $ 300 to $ 1000. What this really says is that the dollar lost much of its value. In a healthy economy, the value of money is constant, i.e. the price of gold is constant. The main cause of this crisis, however, was the same as the main cause of earlier crises in the US: The Fed changed the relationship between long term and short term interest rates, i.e. The Fed inverted the yield curve (most people have never heard about this, if you haven´t and want to know more about it, google it). There were also other factors that I will just mention in passing; The CRA, adopted in 1977 and intensified from 1995, the Sarbanes-Oxley-act (2002). Later came TARP (2008) and Dodd-Frank (2010), and all of these made the regulatory burden heavier for the whole productive sector; in other words: it made it more difficult to run a business. Predictably, the growth slowed down considerably. Byrd writes on page 169 about the «slow economic recovery from the 2008 economic collapse», but he does not understand that the burdensome regulations were the main cause.
This inversion of the yield curve changes good investments into bad investments; investments that before the inversion made a profit turn into bad investments because the term structure of interest rates changed. In 2006-2007, The Fed increased the interest rate from 1 % to 5 %. The economists at The Fed believe that inversions like this are necessary when the economic growth becomes too strong (the economy grew steadily for many years after president Reagan´s not very substantial tax cuts and deregulations); if the yield curve is not inverted, the economy becomes «over heated» and this will, the economists in The Fed believe, cause severe problems. This view is based upon a gross misunderstanding of how an economy works, and it is inspired by the ideas of John Maynard Keynes. Almost all economists today are heavily influenced by Keynes. Keynes´ theories are not correct, and that is why all western countries who follow economic policies inspired by him, from time to time suffer unemployment, inflation, government debt, and more or less severe economic crises, and that the long term development is very negative.
After the crisis, many large firms were close too bankruptcy, and president Obama´s administration spent enormous amount of taxpayer money on bailouts in order to save some of the larger firms and banks. In other words, the Obama administration forced tax payers to cover the losses of some big firms. And yes, some of the bankers had acted irresponsibly. But when people, including bankers, know that the government will help them and bail them out when they act irresponsibly, some of them will act more irresponsibly.
Professor Byrd does not understand any of this; Ayn Rand understood all of this. That is why she was against the existence of The Fed, she opposed government decrees about interest rates, and she opposed government bailouts. She wanted a completely free economy, including a free banking system, and free banking will have the result that money will be based upon a gold standard. The one thinker that is the least responsible for the mess is Ayn Rand, and yet, professor Byrd puts the blame on her.
(For those who are interested in a more through discussion of the cause of the crisis, I can recommend John Allison´s book about what really happened: The Financial Crisis and the Free Market Cure: Why Pure Capitalism is the World Economy’s Only Hope.)
Rand opposed all government regulation, she wanted a society where property rights are fully and completely respected. Today, property rights are not respected, and all property owners are forced to obey thousands of rules and regulations, regulations that lawmakers create on almost a daily basis – regulations that are also because of their enormous complexity, very close to impossible to follow, and that takes a lot of work just to read and understand.
«Capitalism is a brutal, … and arrogantly vicious» professor Byrd claims on page 93. He is completely wrong. Under capitalism, individuals have to deal with each other voluntarily, and they will only deal with each other when both parties profit from it. People who are not benevolent and honest will discover that fewer and fewer people will have anything to do with them; capitalism promotes honesty and benevolence.
There are much of interest to be found in the Objectivist literature about the value of benevolence, On the Ayn Rand Lexicon web site one finds the following quote: «We advocate the “benevolent universe” premise». In one of her essays, Rand wrote that «It is only when a man knows that his neighbors have no power forcibly to interfere with his life, that he can feel benevolence toward them and they toward him – as the history of the American people has demonstrated. The freest people on earth was the most benevolent and the most generous (Rand in «A Nation´s Unity», part 2). There is even a whole essay, titled «Altruism vs. Benevolence», about this (written by Branden, approved by Rand). All of this seems to be completely unknown to professor Byrd.
It is just strange to say, as professor Byrd does, that capitalism is brutal and vicious when elements of capitalism since about 1800 has made possible a wealth unimaginable in earlier times. Capitalism has reduced poverty to such a large extent that it now only exists in areas completely untouched by capitalism. When ideologies that are the complete opposite of capitalism – Christianity, Islam, communism, fascism, Nazism – have lead to mass murder and wars that have killed hundreds of millions of people, and capitalism leads to peace and prosperity, it is strange to say that capitalism is brutal and vicious. Capitalism, to a significant extent, dominated in Europe in the period from 1815 to 1914, and in this period there were no major wars in Europe. Where socialism rules, poverty becomes more and more dominant. This happens every time a country tries socialism; in 2018, the latest example of this is the once reasonably well-off and oil-rich Venezuela, but now, after some years of socialistic policies, poverty is widespread, close to nothing can be bought in the shops, and some people are eating their dogs and cats in order to survive. Crimes of all kinds are in the rise, riots are met by violence by the police and the military. Not much benevolence there anymore.
But the welfare states, a semi-socialist system, are unfortunately growing in size everywhere. Byrd thinks this is a good thing, and let me use Obamacare as an illustration: «… Obama´s attempt to institute a more equitable and sustainable health care system …[was] supposed to guard the nation´s common good, even when a large percentage of the populace isn´t aware of what´s actually in their interest» (page 148). There is a lot to say about this, but let me only say this: health care in the US was (before Obamacare) of a reasonably quality for most people. For some, it was very expensive because of government regulations (that was largely started in the 1940ies). Obama attempted to regulate this important sector even more, and this made it even more bureaucratic and expensive.
The article «Moral Health Care vs. “Universal Health Care”» by Lin Zinser and Paul Hsieh gives a good summary of the history of the American health care system and its problems before Obamacare. It is available here:
On page 172, professor Byrd writes approvingly that the pope regards the «modern capitalist economy of today as an «economy that kills» due to the exclusionary violence that it commits against millions of poor people, workers, citizens of the «global south» …, the elderly, the ill, the dying, and all of those that Ayn Rand found to be devoid of economic and/or social worth». Professor Byrd also claims, and says that he shares this view with Plato: it is a «fact that the «money makers» create the poor» (page 180). On page 93 he wrote that «capitalism is brutal». This is the opposite of the truth: Poverty was the normal state of mankind – until the rise of capitalism. The truth is the following: the money makers raise the standard of living for all, in other words: the more money makers there are, the more people become rich, and poverty is reduced: the only cure for poverty is capitalism. Why? Wealth is the result of production. Production on a systematic, large scale over time is only possible when property rights are respected, and the system that protects property rights is … capitalism. Under capitalism, all interactions between people are voluntary and peaceful, so to describe capitalism as brutal is BS. One can also confirm this by looking at countries and cultures where property rights are not protected: they are poor.
Let us do what professor Byrd rarely does, let us look at some relevant facts. I quote a few paragraphs from Objectivist Craig Biddle´s article «Pope Francis, Religion, Capitalism, and Ayn Rand» (link provided below).
«Given the widely acknowledged fact that countries and populations enjoy wealth and prosperity precisely to the extent that they embrace capitalism, why does Pope Francis call capitalism «the dung of the devil» and jet around the globe aiming to rid the world of it? Economists and other intellectuals have spelled out at great length the overwhelming historic evidence in support of the fact that capitalism―the system of individual rights, limited government, and rule of law―is the political-economic cause of prosperity. … Donald Boudreaux observes that capitalism «is history’s greatest force for raising the living standards of the masses», noting that Pope Francis somehow misses this: «Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the average person lived on about $3 per day (reckoned in 2015 dollars), and each denizen of today’s developing countries―those places touched least by capitalism―scrapes by on $7 per day. In contrast, the average person in today’s market-oriented industrialized world lives on $110 per day, and the average American lives on $150. Now, thanks to capitalism, billions of us . . . live lives that not even the most powerful Byzantine or European potentate dared dream of just a few hundred years ago.» … Why then does Pope Francis insist that capitalism is «the dung of the devil» and that we must eliminate or at least sharply curtail this wretched thing? The Pope sees fit to make such claims because religion … is, in principle, opposed to the very things that capitalism legalizes and venerates―most notably, in this context, the selfish pursuit of profit and the right to keep and use the product of one’s effort. The Bible is chock full of passages that oppose these pillars of capitalism …».
Let me add that professor Byrd touches upon something that is correct when he describes some negative aspects of today´s culture in the West, and especially in the US. But he is wrong to think that the blame for this belongs to capitalism. The economic system in all western countries today is not capitalism, they have a mixed economy, all these countries are welfare states, they do not have the free economy that Ayn Rand regarded as an ideal. I will just give a short quote from Rand (in a letter written on March 19, 1944) where she described the problems in welfare states: «A mixed economy divides a country into an ever-growing number of enemy camps, into economic groups fighting one another for self preservation in an indeterminate mixture of defense and offense.» This seems exactly like a description of the situation today. In other words, the problems are caused not by the spread of the rational and individualistic ideas of Ayn Rand, the problems are caused by the growing collectivism and because of the inter group warfare that the welfare state must lead to.
On page 121, professor Byrd writes as if he believes that the original claims of the IPCC were an obvious truth (that emissions from human use of fossil fuels, so called greenhouse gases, mainly CO2, will cause a global warming that within a few years will have catastrophic results). Byrd: «Rand completely missed that which is not even in question within the scientific community today, i.e. the fact that global climate change is occurring and the fact that it is man made». Byrd presents this as if it were an obvious, uncontroversial fact. But few scientists believe this anymore; climate change has been a natural phenomenon for thousands of years, the changes that have been observed in the last 150 years are clearly within normal variations, and there has been no warning these last 20 years, even if the emissions of CO2 have increased. It is professor Byrd who is in the wrong here.
Rand was as early as 1972 writing about how environmentalism would come to be used for political purposes, used as a bogus reason for the political left´s campaign to transfer more and more power to the government. She was completely right about this, and if we use global warming as an example, anyone who has followed the development of the claims of the IPCC and some climate scientists these last few years can confirm (examples are the failed predictions of IPCC, «climategate», etc.) Byrd does not at all touch upon this very important point. He writes as if everything that environmentalists have claimed since the 1970ies is the gospel truth, which it clearly is not, all of it´s predictions have failed completely.
A good book about this is Alex Epstein´s The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.
However, it seems as if Rand in an interview said that emissions from cars are not harmful, if the transcription of the interview Byrd quotes is to be relied upon. But Byrd tries to give his readers the impression that Rand did not care at all about pollution, as long as the polluter could make a profit. This is clearly wrong. In her essay on environmentalism, she wrote: «As far as the role of government is concerned, there are laws … prohibiting certain kinds of pollution, such as the dumping of industrial waste into rivers. These laws have not been enforced. It is the enforcement of such laws that those concerned with the issue may properly demand. Specific laws – forbidding specifically defined and proved harm, physical harm, to persons and property – are the only solution to problems of this kind» (The New Left, page 142). This quote proves that what professor Byrd claims as Rand´s view of pollution is completely wrong. Maybe that is why he did not include it in his book.
Byrd even mentions Rand´s notes in her diary about the gruesome killer William Hickman. Hickman had some admirable traits; he was self confident and had a somewhat brash personality, and it seems as if Byrd tries to make the case that Rand in some way approved of Hickman´s gruesome murders. However, one should always keep context: Rand was writing about Hickman in her journals, in 1928, when she was 23 years old. At hat time, she was planning a career as a novelist, and was looking for interesting characters to use as models for fictional characters. As everyone should know, the public is, even today, fascinated by stories about charismatic criminals; everyone knows current works like American Psycho, Dexter, The Sopranos, etc. Rand might have wanted to include a character with some of Hickman´s personality traits in a work of fiction. Yes, Rand at 23 wrote in her private journal that she admired some of Hickman´s traits, and Byrd quotes some of the things she wrote. But professor Byrd does not mention the fact that Rand´s evaluation of him was that he was a «purposeless monster», and said that «Yes, he is a monster» (both quotes are to be found on page 38 in Journals, but apparently, professor Byrd did not see them or found them worthy of inclusion). As for the seemingly positive things she said about Hickman´s personality, Rand wrote: «I am afraid that I idealize Hickman and that he might not be this after all. In fact, he probably isn´t» (Journals, page 39). I.e. Rand said explicitly that Hickman probably did not really have the admirable traits she had attributed to him on the preceding page.
So, to present Rand as somehow a supporter or a fan of a mass murderer is an outright lie, especially since she later clearly stated that the worst one could do to another person is to initiate force against him.
It is true that in her youth, Rand was influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, and Byrd makes a big point out of this. Nietzsche was an avid irrationalist. Commentator Irving Zeitlin writes in his Nietzsche: A Re-evaluation: For Nietzsche «rationality … constitutes decadence. Rationality stands in opposition to the instincts, and is therefore a sign of sickness, not health». Nietzsche admired people who violently fought for power – he admired people like Alcibiades, Caesar, and Napoleon. Here are some quotes from Nietzsche: «The most evil is necessary for the Superman’s best», «[Freedom is] that one is prepared to sacrifice human beings for one’s cause», «…one must learn to sacrifice many and to take one’s cause seriously enough not to spare men», «[Some men] are sculptors – and the rest are merely clay compared to them», «we must accept this cruel-sounding truth, that slavery is of the essence of culture». To say that the ideas of the mature Rand are in some manner related to this is just not true at all. Rand said in a radio interview in 1964 that «I am very anxious to separate Objectivism from Nietzsche altogether … I don`t want to be confused with Nietzsche in any respect». As everyone knows, Rand was in favor of rationality and opposed the initiation of force. Professor Byrd ignores all this and tries to present Rand as a Nietzschean.
Yes, Rand lets Kira say something that was close to the Nietschean view in the first edition of We the Living, but it is wrong to claim that what a fictional character says is an expression of the author´s opinion. (But some aspects of Kira´personality were in some ways modeled upon Rand herself.) More about the changes Rand made for the reissue of We the Living in 1959 is to be found in the article «We the Living ´36 and ´59» by professor Robert Mayhew, included in the collection Essays on Ayn Rand´s We the Living, edited by Mayhew. For a professional investigation of the relationship between Rand and Nietzsche, one may read «Ayn Rand´s Evolving View of Friedrich Nietzsche» by philosophy professor Lester Hunt, available in A Companion to Ayn Rand, published in the series Blackwell Companions to Philosophy.
Byrd wrote that he read Rand´s works, but did not enjoy it, and he did not enjoy writing about her ideas: «The book you are about to read was not a labor of love, but a work of pain and suffering. If happiness is the goal of self-interest, then writing this book was an exercise in sadness but necessary self-sacrifice. I did not enjoy reading her work …» (page xii).
I must say that reading professor Byrd´s book was not very enjoyable. To see so many misrepresentations, so many out-of-context quotes, to see Rand presented as the mother of events and cultural developments that were quite the opposite of what she really wished, was not enjoyable, to say the least. Rand was an original and important thinker, and her ideas, if they will come to dominate the culture, can change the world into the wonderful place it can be and ought to be. Rand was completely honest and had a stellar integrity, and when I saw her misrepresented the way Byrd does in this book, I wanted to defend her, and so I have tried in this short article. (I am an Objectivist, but that of course does not imply that I agree with every statement Rand ever made.) This article could easily have been much longer, there are many points I have not touched upon – for instance, I did not include anything on the unprincipled approach to philosophical ideas by some of the people who claim to be influenced by Rand, e.g. actors on the political stage in the US like Alan Greenspan, Pamela Geller and Paul Ryan. However, I was not able to see that people like these belong in a book that purports to be about Rand´s philosophy of religion.
Two final points: there is almost nothing about Ayn Rand´s philosophy of religion in the book. And if professor Byrd´s point is to show that Objectivism really is an ideology that promotes irrationality and self-sacrifice among its adherents, i, e. that Objectivism is a religion, a «gospel according to John Galt», it also fails completely.
Is this book then a compete waste of ink, paper and glue and the reader´s time? No, it is not. It shows clearly professor Byrd´s intellectual firepower, and it shows the level of his honesty and competence in dealing with an important thinker with whom he disagrees. And some may find that useful.
(I wish to thank Per Arne Karlsen and Martin Johansen for useful suggestions during the writing of this article.)
Below are links to some additional material that may be of interest.
Ed Locke on the Burns biography:
Ari Armstrong on the Burns biography:
Robert Mayhew on the Burns biography:
Jeff Perren on the Burns biography
Ed Cline on the Heller biography:
The book on amazon.com: