All Commentary
Sunday, March 16, 2003

Ayn Rand and Business

A Very Elementary Introduction to Rand and Her Thought

What sort of book is this? Perhaps the best answer is to say that an alternate title could be: Ayn Rand for Dummies. Indeed, that might be a better title, for the book is a very elementary introduction to Rand and her thought. It is well written and organized, providing an accurate account of the basic tenets of Rand’s philosophy. Moreover, the book offers the right combination of personal vignettes, scandal, and inspiration to satisfy the beginner who wants to be entertained as well as informed. It thus serves well as a book that one might give someone who has finished one of Rand’s novels and now wants to know a little more.

The book is divided into three parts. Part one, “Ayn Rand and Objectivism,” provides an account of Rand’s life, her affair and breakup with Nathaniel Branden, and the rudiments of her philosophy. Part two, “Randian Work,” describes in eight brief chapters the central virtues of Rand’s ethical egoism. These chapters home in on “Rand’s ideas regarding the personal characteristics of effective people.” Part three, “Randian Management,” explores the implications of Rand’s thought for managing and leading organizations—in effect, for managerial ethics.

The presentation of Rand’s philosophy, as well as the central virtues of ethical egoism, never strays far from Rand’s language, and there is no attempt, beyond the usual contrasting of egoism with altruism, to place Rand’s thought in an intellectual context. The reader never learns of works that are sympathetic and supportive of the rejection of altruism — for example, such works as Henry Veatch’s Rational Man (1962) or David Norton’s Personal Destinies (1976). Rand is thus made to appear as entirely original, as if no one else ever shared her commitment to the ethical centrality and sanctity of individual human life.

Though integrated nicely with examples from Rand’s fiction, the discussion of the virtues does not consider their place in the lives of “effective people.” Are the virtues—independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride—practiced only because they are means to individual well-being, or are they also practiced for their own sake because they are constituents or expressions of such living? Also, do effective people ever have a place for treating others as more than merely means to their well-being? What is the place of friendship in Rand’s ethics? Finally, Rand seems to portray rationality in theoretical terms only with little discussion of what practical reason, much less practical wisdom, might be. Can this view of rationality be reconciled with ethical individualism?

Perhaps these questions are unfair, because laymen might not be expected to ask such questions. Yet, after nearly 30 years of teaching ethics, I have always found the beginner capable of probing questions, and it is here that the authors fall down. They do not sufficiently discuss problems and ambiguities in Rand’s ethics so as to allow the reader to understand or appreciate her positions. In effect, they treat their audience like dummies.

However, the book purports to do more than educate laymen. It seeks to tell the world something new and substantial about Rand’s thought, particularly as it pertains to managerial ethics. We are told the following: that employees are not chattel; that voluntary cooperation is more effective than coercion; that employees ought to be judged by objective criteria; and that the principle of trade applies to both sides of the employer-employee relationship. Further, we are told that the human mind is the ultimate source of knowledge and wealth and that all progress, spiritual as well as material, stems from the innovators—those who use their minds.

All of those statements are true, and Rand certainly made or implied them. But none of this is new. There have been many works in business ethics using Rand-inspired insights. Robert McGee’s Business Ethics and Common Sense and Tibor Machan’s Commerce and Morality come to mind. Further, the relationship between these statements and the moral vision that is the United States can be found in Douglas Den Uyl’s The Fountainhead: An American Novel (1999). Ayn Rand and Business is certainly not in this league.

The penultimate chapter, “Leading With Purpose,” does offer something new, namely that insights from Rand’s ethics can be used to manage people in business. We are told that purpose and focus are crucial to a successful business organization, for they unify effort and bring about productiveness. But there is nothing terribly profound here. It can be found in almost any organizational behavior text or management course.

  • Douglas B. Rasmussen is professor of philosophy at St. John's University, where he has taught since 1981. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network

  • Ayn Rand (1905–1982) was a Russian-American novelist, philosopher, playwright, and screenwriter. She is known for her two best-selling novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and for developing a philosophical system she called Objectivism. She corresponded with FEE's founder Leonard Read and provided a meaningful intellectual influence over free-market thought in the second half of the twentieth century. Her influence continues to expand through her fiction and nonfiction works and the educational work being done on Objectivism.