When I was fifteen, I was in a bookstore, and I decided on a lark that I should learn about politics. So I picked up Machiavelli, and The Communist Manifesto, and something by this “Ane” Rand person that looked like the exact opposite, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. I liked that one best. I followed it up with The Fountainhead and its tale of individualism and integrity. I then read Rand’s entire body of work, started reading Austrian economists, and decided to be a philosopher so that I could help save the world from mysticism and collectivism. I joined Objectivist mailing lists, went to Objectivist conferences, wrote for Objectivist periodicals, and spoke about Objectivism to anyone who would listen and not a few who would not.
But Ayn Rand grew disappointing. Her individualism is inspiring. She understood that philosophy matters, and in her writing she tried to present a sweeping and ambitious philosophical system. But I slowly saw that the details were missing. When you fiddle with the details, you’re accused of missing the forest for the trees, but Rand was trying to plant a forest without planting any trees. It doesn’t work and you end up with a clearcut wasteland, both ugly and useless.
So I drifted from Rand in graduate school and settled on philosophical methods and claims associated with figures Rand abominated — Plato, Descartes, Kant, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Hayek — along with figures that she respected — Aristotle and John Locke. I stopped thinking of philosophy as a battleground of ideas and started thinking of it as a conversation, a collaboration toward the truth. Later I seriously studied Rousseau and John Rawls and had to acknowledge that my libertarian convictions had been wrong.
But now Ayn Rand seems to matter more than ever before. Atlas Shrugged has been cited on the floor of the Senate, the extremely influential Rep. Paul Ryan got his start into politics because of Rand, and there are more Objectivists in academia and think-tanks — many with heavy corporate funding — than ever before.
And so far, not one single solitary person has given these Objectivists any reason to change their minds. Opponents of Objectivism virtually never understand Rand’s philosophy; they can’t diagnose what’s actually wrong with it and their failures just reinforce Objectivists’ sense of being both right and righteous. Professional philosophers don’t usually want to spend their time refuting marginal figures, but this figure has got to be refuted before she stops being marginal.
So I decided to write a book, From Rand to Reason: Why a Radical for Capitalism Became a Mild-Mannered Liberal. It’s a “why” book, not a “how” book — it’s not a memoir, it’s a sustained critical engagement and argument against Ayn Rand’s philosophy, touching also on economics, history, and psychology where Rand made claims in those fields. In it, I am offering the most sympathetic, plausible interpretation of Ayn Rand’s writings that I can generate, treating her just as I do every other philosopher whom I study, so that when I offer criticism, it will be correct. Beating up straw men isn’t very interesting. You can only win if you’re playing, and if you’re cheating, you’re not playing.