Ayn Rand Was Wrong About Self-Interest

Denise Cummins: Ayn Rand and Self-Interest“Ayn Rand is my hero,” yet another student tells me during office hours. “Her writings freed me. They taught me to rely on no one but myself.”

As I look at the freshly scrubbed and very young face across my desk, I find myself wondering why Rand’s popularity among the young continues to grow. Thirty years after her death, her book sales still number in the hundreds of thousands annually — having tripled since the 2008 economic meltdown. Among her devotees are highly influential celebrities, such as Brad Pitt and Eva Mendes, and politicos, such as current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Republican [Senator] Ted Cruz.

The core of Rand’s philosophy — which also constitutes the overarching theme of her novels — is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive. This, she believed, is the ultimate expression of human nature…

One wonders whether these same people would champion the idea of removing all umpires and referees from sporting events. What would mixed martial arts or football or rugby be like, one wonders, without those pesky referees constantly getting in the way of competition and self-interest?

Perhaps another way to look at this is to ask why our species of hominid is the only one still in existence on the planet, despite there having been many other hominid species during the course of our own evolution. One explanation is that we were cleverer, more ruthless, and more competitive than those who went extinct. But anthropological archaeology tells a different story. Our very survival as a species depended on cooperation, and humans excel at cooperative effort. Rather than keeping knowledge, skills, and goods ourselves, early humans exchanged them freely across cultural groups.

When people behave in ways that violate the axioms of rational choice, they are not behaving foolishly. They are giving researchers a glimpse of the prosocial tendencies that made it possible for our species to survive and thrive… then and today.

–Denise Cummins
This Is What Happens When You Take Ayn Rand Seriously

2 thoughts on “Ayn Rand Was Wrong About Self-Interest

  1. Here’s an interesting writer a friend clued me into yesterday; Pankaj Mishra. He holds that the doctrine of rational self-interest has utterly failed most people, and led to the rise of authoritarianism worldwide. Sample article:


    The guy’s slightly more centrist than me, but he knows his history and is wicked smart. Well worth checking out his stuff in the Guardian and Bloomberg sometime.

  2. The topic of Ayn Rand came up in a Paul Krugman column several years ago (I’m thinking probably in 2011 or ’12).

    I regret that I didn’t write down the contributor’s name, but someone left this insightful comment about why Ayn Rand’s books are so popular:

    “She offers ELITISM for the MASSES.”

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