Christopher Hitchens Dismisses the Cult of Ayn Rand: There’s No “Need to Have Essays Advocating Selfishness Among Human Beings; It Requires No Reinforcement”

Charges of hypocrisy, con­tra­dic­tion, “flip-flop­ping,” etc. in pol­i­tics are so much mud thrown at the cas­tle walls. Unless the peas­ants gath­er in large enough num­bers to storm the palace and depose their lords, their right­eous­ness avails them noth­ing. What does it mat­ter to the cur­rent par­ty in pow­er, for example—who wears the nation­al flag like a cape and has decid­ed the civ­il reli­gion and its Evan­gel­i­cal vari­ety are one in the same—that its most-admired role mod­el and (alleged) fix­er is a cor­rupt Russ­ian auto­crat who mur­ders jour­nal­ists (or a Con­fed­er­ate gen­er­al who led the armies of a trea­so­nous slave state)?

So it is, on and on, with the polit­i­cal class.

Take Alan Greenspan, chair­man of the Fed­er­al Reserve from 1987 to 2006. Dur­ing these years, he was wide­ly hailed as a major pow­er behind the throne, no mat­ter the poli­cies of those who occu­pied it. He was “oblig­ed to report,” Christo­pher Hitchens wrote in Van­i­ty Fair in 2000, “to Con­gress only twice a year, at for­mal occa­sions where he is received with the def­er­ence that was once accord­ed the Emper­or of Japan.” I well remem­ber the dowdy fris­son accom­pa­ny­ing those appear­ances in the 90s, the Bill Clin­ton bub­ble years. Hitchens only slight­ly exag­ger­ates. But some­how, Greenspan retained this guru-like aura despite the fact that his posi­tion vio­lat­ed his sin­cere­ly-held beliefs as a mem­ber, he him­self told Hitchens, of Ayn Rand’s “inner cir­cle”

As Hitchens notes in the grainy video clip above, “a state Fed­er­al Reserve Bank is not part of the Lib­er­tar­i­an pro­gram, though Mr. Greenspan seems a bit iffy about this self-evi­dent propo­si­tion.” In addi­tion to cham­pi­oning athe­ism and abor­tion rights, Rand, Greenspan’s “intel­lec­tu­al guru,” defined the rigid ide­o­log­i­cal dis­dain for gov­ern­ment med­dling in mar­kets and social spend­ing of any kind. Yet she end­ed her days on the gov­ern­ment dime. But there are no con­tra­dic­tions for pur­vey­ors of theod­i­cies. Ran­di­ans, or “Objec­tivists,” if they pre­fer, must know that to every­one out­side the cir­cle, the phi­los­o­phy looks like eth­i­cal­ly-bank­rupt cult log­ic, wish­ful think­ing eas­i­ly dis­card­ed when incon­ve­nient. Still, adepts will write to tell us that if we only grasped the gnos­tic rea­son­ing of such-and-such argu­ment, then we too could pierce the veil.

Hitchens dis­pens­es with this pre­tense, not as an anar­cho-com­mu­nist rad­i­cal but as a some­time neo­con­ser­v­a­tive hawk and some­time admir­er of Rand (or at least a knowl­edge­able read­er of her work). “I have some respect for the ‘Virtue of Self­ish­ness,’” he goes on to say in his aside on Rand above—which occurred dur­ing a lec­ture called “The Moral Neces­si­ty of Athe­ism” at Sewa­nee Uni­ver­si­ty in 2004. (In his Van­i­ty Fair essay, Hitchens pro­nounced him­self a “Rand buff.”) And yet, the title of Rand’s col­lec­tion of essays pro­vides him with the rhetor­i­cal essence of his cri­tique, one drawn from a dif­fer­ent strain of virtue—of a reli­gious vari­ety, even. After dis­miss­ing Rand on lit­er­ary grounds, he says:

I don’t think there’s any need to have essays advo­cat­ing self­ish­ness among human beings; I don’t know what your impres­sion has been, but some things require no fur­ther rein­force­ment.

The urbane Hitchens goes on to tell an off-col­or anec­dote about Lil­lian Hell­man with a moral­is­tic under­tone, gets a laugh, and piv­ots to a much old­er the­o­log­i­cal con­flict to bring his point home.

So to have a book stren­u­ous­ly rec­om­mend­ing that peo­ple be more self-cen­tered seems to me, as the Angli­can Church used to say in its cri­tique of Catholi­cism, a work of super-arro­ga­tion. It’s too stren­u­ous.

It’s try­ing too hard, that is, to con­vince us, and itself, per­haps, that its super­sti­tions, self-defens­es, and desires are nat­ur­al law. Rand’s belief sys­tem has so lit­tle intel­lec­tu­al cur­ren­cy among thinkers on the left that few peo­ple spend any time both­er­ing to refute it. But Hitchens did the polit­i­cal cen­ter a ser­vice when he took on defend­ers of Ran­di­an­ism in the media, such as he does in the debate below with David Frum, the now infa­mous neo­con­ser­v­a­tive Cana­di­an speech­writer for George W. Bush. Those who think the health­care debate began with the elec­tion of Barack Oba­ma may be sur­prised to see it con­duct­ed in almost the very same terms in 1996.

Frum defends a ver­sion of the lib­er­tar­i­an view, Hitchens a social demo­c­ra­t­ic per­spec­tive. When Rand’s name inevitably comes up near the end of the dis­cus­sion (4:40), Hitchens artic­u­lates the same views: “I always thought it quaint, and rather touch­ing,” he says with dry irony, “that there is in Amer­i­ca a move­ment that thinks peo­ple are not yet self­ish enough…. It’s some­what refresh­ing to meet peo­ple who man­age to get through their day actu­al­ly believ­ing that.” Like many oth­ers, Hitchens embod­ied a num­ber of con­tra­dic­tions. Among them, per­haps, was his staunch, almost Catholic belief—despite his stren­u­ous objec­tion to religion—that self­ish­ness… too much self­ish­ness, a val­oriza­tion of self­ish­ness, a cult of self­ish­ness… is self-evi­dent­ly a rather sin­ful thing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When Ayn Rand Col­lect­ed Social Secu­ri­ty & Medicare, After Years of Oppos­ing Ben­e­fit Pro­grams

Christo­pher Hitchens Cre­ates a Revised List of The 10 Com­mand­ments for the 21st Cen­tu­ry

Flan­nery O’Connor: Friends Don’t Let Friends Read Ayn Rand (1960)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • brian t says:

    I actu­al­ly read Rand’s posi­tion on self­ish­ness not as an argu­ment for *more* self­ish­ness, but rather *bet­ter* self­ish­ness: don’t be blind­ly self­ish, but rather think about it and do it ratio­nal­ly. In my view this is among the least offen­sive of her posi­tions, an eco­nom­ic argu­ment rather than a per­son­al one, tying in to the mod­ern under­stand­ing about how peo­ple respond to incen­tives. But Rand got it bad­ly wrong in oth­er respects, such as the “Social Dar­win­ism” or idea of a return to the gold stan­dard.

  • JD says:

    Yet anoth­er ‘qual­i­ty’ piece by Open Cul­ture. Hitchens is hard­ly an ade­quate crit­ic of Rand’s work. Vir­tu­al­ly every com­ment he ever made in any philo­soph­ic pony revealed tremen­dous igno­rance. Rand’s self­ish­ness is mere­ly a refined ver­sion of the ide­al Aris­totelian man. One of the first things she does is to dis­miss the com­mon con­cep­tion of selfishness—did Hitchens even read the book?. That’s why Rand insist­ed in call­ing it “ratio­nal self-inter­est.”

    The point on col­lect­ing ben­e­fits is ad homi­men. For an Objec­tivist, pay­ing your tax­es enti­tles you to get your mon­ey back. Allow­ing the gov­ern­ment to take your mon­ey while need­ing it is pre­cise­ly what you should not do.

  • Windsor Viney says:

    Unless Hitchens was delib­er­ate­ly pun­ning, it’s not “super-arro­ga­tion,” but “supereroga­tion” mean­ing though per­haps vir­tu­ous or ben­e­fi­cial, not required of a human being to per­form. See, for instance, .

  • Ava Campbell says:

    Sad­ly this coun­try has acquired not a “super­man” but a “super­fool”. I doubt that he knows who Ms Rand was or what her ideas were. Even so he seems to have the self­ish, self-cen­tered and self-inter­est she is cred­it­ed with espous­ing in her work. Ah, what a shame the two can’t dis­cuss the issue.

  • Raskolnikov says:

    Great web­site. Great arti­cle. How­ev­er, I do take issue with call­ing Putin an auto­crat. Autoc­ra­cy has an aca­d­e­m­ic defin­tion and Putin is far from being one. The same can be said for Rus­sia. That said, Rus­sia is an author­i­tar­i­an state. There are impor­tant dif­fer­ences between the two. Sor­ry for being so pedan­tic.

  • Dennis Daly says:

    Polit­i­cal Objec­tivism as well as var­i­ous ideas pro­nounce­ments and philoso­phies from which spawned an entire Amer­i­can sub­cul­ture is notable.
    What is of even more sig­nif­i­cance are the Social improve­ments and secu­ri­ty which elit­ists con­tin­ue to use Rands work to hang their prover­bial hat on. The great les­son of gov­ern­ment by the elite and a proped up spokesper­son who is noth­ing but a nov­el­ist is Ann Rands need to accept the Social safe­ty nets which she dis­par­aged through her life. The true sto­ry lies in the life of the nov­el­ists not the fic­tion­al writ­ings she penned

  • mark taha says:

    Con­fed­er­ate Gen­er­al — does he mean the great Robert E.Lee?

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