Atlas Scowled Mightily
May 11, 2009 3:06 PM   Subscribe

What single book presents the most forceful argument against both Randian Objectivism and the libertarian political philosophy that presents itself (in some ways, at least) as having followed naturally from Rand's ideas?

A friend of mine has just soldiered his way through Atlas Shrugged and would like to read something else as a counterpoint to Rand. Somewhat offhandedly, he mentioned the Communist Manifesto, but I don't think that's particularly apt. Ideas?
posted by killdevil to Religion & Philosophy (28 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments or Henry George's Progress and Povertry.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:10 PM on May 11, 2009

Is the goal to balance out the extreme libertarian woo-woo by reading some extreme socialist woo-woo? Or does he want to balance out the extremism by reading something moderate and pragmatic? (Either's fine by me, but they'll get you different book suggestions.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:18 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 3:22 PM on May 11, 2009 [4 favorites]

The Bible, the Analects of Confucius, or a handful of Buddhist Sutras.
posted by mono blanco at 3:28 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Previously, sort of.
posted by shadow vector at 3:30 PM on May 11, 2009

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:41 PM on May 11, 2009 [4 favorites]

The perfect tonic, and I mean this totally seriously: How to Win Friends and Influence People. (Well loved and oft-recommended on AskMeFi, by the way.)

An anti-libertarian tome isn't the thing because what people seem to get from Rand is at best a very special case of libertarianism.

Instead, while there are doubtless exceptions, what people take from, and get reinforced by, Rand is a profound misunderstanding of the interpersonal manner whereby success is achieved and recognized in modern society.

Where Rand is all about the exceptional individual having a moral right to status and impunity, that's hardly libertarian. Indeed, I'd suggest that libertarianism in its way contemplates as efficient an exclusion of the non-conformist and anti-communal as does any collectivist system -- the market has little brief for he who can't appeal to the masses. (Right wing libertarians sympathize with him insofar as his tax bill, and left wing libertarians insofar as his narcotic and bedroom habits, but neither grants him his right to, say, build department stores with radically minimalist facades.)
posted by MattD at 3:44 PM on May 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

If you want to counter the libertarianism that stems from Rand, your best bet is to give an honest representation of the libertarianism that does not stem from Rand. If your friend is attracted to Rand because libertarianism is appealing, he'll learn that it's not about being a selfish bastard and consider it on its own terms, absent the literary flourishes. And if he's attracted to the selfish bastard part of Rand, he'll learn that his way of thinking isn't shared by the majority of the people who consider themselves libertarians.

I recommend Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman.
posted by decathecting at 3:48 PM on May 11, 2009

Political Liberalism by John Rawls
Democracy Realized by Roberto Mangabeira Unger
Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
The Big Money by John Dos Passos
Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
The Principle of Hope by Ernst Bloch
Bandits by Eric Hobsbawm
History and Class Consciousness by Georg Lukács
Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics
by Ernesto Laclau
The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy
by Murray Bookchin
The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere by Jürgen Habermas
Pedagogy of Hope by Paolo Friere
Durable Inequality by Charles Tilly
What We Owe to Each Other by T. M. Scanlon
Native Son by James Baldwin
Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist by Alexander Berkman
Accumulation of Capital by Rosa Luxemburg
Selections from the Prison Notebooks by Antonio Gramsci
The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein
The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic
by Chalmers Johnson
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
Rogue States: The Rule of Force in World Affairs by Noam Chomsky
posted by ornate insect at 3:49 PM on May 11, 2009 [12 favorites]

Development as Freedom - Amartya Sen
posted by allen.spaulding at 3:53 PM on May 11, 2009

Response by poster: Is the goal to balance out the extreme libertarian woo-woo by reading some extreme socialist woo-woo? Or does he want to balance out the extremism by reading something moderate and pragmatic?

The latter.
posted by killdevil at 4:00 PM on May 11, 2009

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
posted by ornate insect at 4:03 PM on May 11, 2009 [4 favorites]

He should read Sewer, Gas, and Electric by Matt Ruff. One of the characters is the disembodied AI mentality of Ayn Rand stuck in a hurricane lamp. It's also wonderful in nine million other ways.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:08 PM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

Any Rand's metaphysics are a joke. Anything he reads that gives him a grounding in western philosophy would show him how much she glosses over. I haven't finished it, but Betrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy has been enjoyable from what I've read (though be warned, it would better be titled "What Betrand Russell, a very smart guy, thought of most of the other very smart guys that informed his field").

A bit of critical thinking will show that her ethical and political views do not follow from her muddled ontological ones. If he's looking for a well thought out political philosophy that conflicts with Rand's at it's core, I recommend John Rawls.

For a strong dissenting view on Rand's exhalation of self and selfishness, he should check out this slim volume of commentary on the Buddhist Heart Sutra by vietnamese zen monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn. There are many critiques to be made of naive selfishness - putting yourself first at the expense of others is unlikely to get you what you want out of those people long term - but this critiques the very idea that there is an independent self to favor in the first place.
posted by phrontist at 4:09 PM on May 11, 2009

If the desire is for pragmatism, my only offering is DON'T read anything by Rawls. Seriously. He's a very interesting theorist, but it all sort of breaks down into hand waving at nearly every point he gets close to anything labeled application.

I would second Thich Nhat Hahn's commentaries, as they are very good, but do require some understanding of the Heart Sutra to get the most out of.

I would recommend Otsuka's Libertarianism without inequality which is far more on the pragmatic applications of libertarianism without the inherent selfish bastard mode that many people get from first brush with it. Otsuka has written quite a bit of interesting commentary on the topics.
posted by strixus at 4:36 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

A vastly overlooked anti-libertarian polemic is Charles Derber's Corporation Nation. While he does not mention Rand (I don't think), this could be worth looking at because Derber singles out and attacks those ideas most near and dear to libertarians, such as the right of virtual soverignty over one's private property.

Admittedly the first half of the book is better than the second, where Derber gets prescriptive. But the first 4-5 chapters alone are worth the price of admission.
posted by hiteleven at 4:43 PM on May 11, 2009

What single book presents the most forceful argument against both Randian Objectivism and the libertarian political philosophy that presents itself

I would have to go with Atlas Shrugged. Not only is it almost unreadably boring, but the characters themselved are such complete assholes that it's difficult to imagine a more effective refutation of Rand than Rand herself.
posted by dersins at 4:57 PM on May 11, 2009 [5 favorites]

I liked Jennifer Government as a fictional account of a libertarian society gone to an extreme.

I like Robert Axelrod's Evolution of Cooperation for some interesting thoughts on the evolutionary origins of altruistic behavior.

Communitarianism is an interesting counterpoint to the extreme individualism Rand espouses. In the Wikipedia article, a few great books are listed including After Virtue by Alisdair Macintyre and Spheres of Justice by Michael Walzer.

Robert Nozick, who has sympathies with Rand's conclusions, discusses the flaws in her argument in his essay On the Randian Argument.

Hope this helps.
David Amann
posted by davidamann at 5:05 PM on May 11, 2009

Native Son by James Baldwin

Nitpick with a point: Richard Wright wrote Native Son, but I mostly wanted to say that Wright's The Outsider touches on some of the same themes and is a bit more overtly political, if that's the taste we're catering towards.
posted by substars at 5:10 PM on May 11, 2009

Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich by Kevin Phillips
Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights
by Thom Hartmann
Ruling America: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy
Edited by Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle
The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Eugene D. Genovese
posted by ornate insect at 5:15 PM on May 11, 2009

Hah! Dersins has it. A number of the other suggestions above are great, Rawls in particular, and if I had to add my own it'd be Matt Ridley's The Origins of Virtue, my favorite book about the evolution of cooperation.

But really, nothing has set me more against Rand than slogging through her terrible, clumsy, infantile prose waiting for a nugget of wisdom that never came.
posted by kprincehouse at 5:22 PM on May 11, 2009

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Specifically, this refutes the idea that humans are capable of sustained rationality.

My Years with Ayn Rand by Nathaniel Branden

Branden was a protoge of Rand, and was for a time considered second only to Rand herself in importance to the movement, until ousted by Rand. While he's not really a moderate, he addresses his issues with Objectivism and Rand herself.
posted by lore at 6:16 PM on May 11, 2009

For moderation, I'd suggest The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It's a great look at how capital-R-Rationality — either the Randian Lone Genius variety or the central government planning she was opposed to — makes for a lousy living environment. Good cities aren't deliberately reasoned-out by anyone, in or out of the government. They emerge from a big hairy irrational inefficient mess of socialization, community involvement and basic human decency.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:09 PM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

Seconding ROU_Xenophone's suggestion to check out Matt Ruff's Sewer, Gas, and Electric, in spite of it being not precisely what you're requesting. Not only, as s/he mentions, is one of the characters a tiny, tiny Ayn Rand inside of an electric lamp, but just about midway through the book there's a 6 page tour-de-force retelling of Atlas Shrugged that lays bare some of its inanities.
posted by nobody at 10:38 PM on May 11, 2009

A friend of mine has just soldiered his way through Atlas Shrugged and would like to read something else as a counterpoint to Rand. Somewhat offhandedly, he mentioned the Communist Manifesto, but I don't think that's particularly apt. Ideas?

I recommend Freud instead of the Communist Manifesto.
posted by Brian B. at 7:03 AM on May 12, 2009

"I would have to go with Atlas Shrugged."

I would, too, but for totally different reasons than Dersins. I found the book readable and even enjoyable (except for Galt's horrendously long-winded diatribe). In fact, as a college student with far-left leanings, I can honestly say that Atlas Shrugged helped make me a capitalist.

But as philosophy, the book completely fails when exposed to any logical thought, especially if the reader is at all familiar with business realities of the past 50 years. The universe Rand creates is a bizarro-world with a physics apart from our reality -- her central argument is akin to saying: "We should all be allowed to reverse time because Superman saves people (and never mind the fact that reversing time is impossible and Superman is fictitious)".
posted by coolguymichael at 1:09 PM on May 12, 2009

From the previous thread, I'd second the juicy inside gossip in Jeff Walker's The Ayn Rand Cult. The reviews naming it a "mixed bag" are probably most correct, but it's filled with fascinating and fairly well-documented detail that, to me, provided quite the "forceful argument" against taking Rand seriously. Some of the Stalinist groupthink shenanigans will have you laughing out loud and shaking your head in disbelief - they're pretty much the opposite of what you'd expect to "follow naturally from Rand's ideas."
posted by mediareport at 9:07 PM on May 12, 2009

Rand is a bizarre figure, whose popularity tends to surprise and amaze. She really is nuts, and not in a nice way. Midgely had a well written pop at her here - although I'm no massive fan of Midgley's either.

Interesting that someone mentioned Otusuka and his left liberalism, this I really recommend - although do not agree with. It really is very hard to justify pre-institutional property rights, in my opinion. The classic anti-libertarian pieces for me are these two original book reviews of Anarchy, State and Utopia by Thomas Nagel and Bryan Barry. (Both require J-Store) although you can get some of the tennor of Barry's review for free here.
posted by munchbunch at 11:23 AM on July 16, 2009

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