Economist Tyler Cowen is well-known, widely respected and generally a very bright brain. And he reckons he rates Ayn Rand. Yet Alex Epstein, who knows his Ayn Rand, points out that he really doesn’t – points out that being brilliant doesn’t guarantee you know whereof you speak – that “mental virtuosity“ (a big thinkum) does not necessarily equal "mental virtue" (a consistent practice of using the best available thinking methods to arrive at the truth).
You see, Cowen rates Ayn Rand, saying her her main influence on him was the book Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal. But then he damns Ayn Rand, waving straw men in the breeze and saying he was unimpressed by her philosophy from the beginning. “But here’s the interesting part to me,” says Epstein:
Cowen is an economist who claims that Ayn Rand's philosophy is essentially worthless--even though she, in the very book he cites, uses that philosophy to pose fundamental challenges to Cowen's field.
Rand’s book “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal” gives a systematic and devastating critique of the false and unnamed *philosophical* premises underlying all of modern economics (in her time and ours). She argues that a false, collectivist view of morality along with a failure to understand the nature of human rationality have led this field to be a frequent influence in favour of statism and against the productive.
In this critique, whose brilliance makes me feel like a mental midget every time I read it, Rand illustrates by example the virtues of her philosophy: its recognition of the primary of moral standards (e.g., individual lives vs. some collective “society”) and the importance of naming them; its uniquely clear guidelines to concept formation (e.g., Rand defines her concepts with razor precision); just go read the thing and you'll see how good it is.
Yet instead of acknowledging the critique Rand made of his field (let alone answering it) all Cowen seems to remember or acknowledge from the book … is a bastardisation of Rand’s view that we should give producers *justice*)
It’s actually pathetic. Yet so common – someone steps up to the plate saying they have this and this objection to Rand’s philosophy, and at the first swing it’s clear they’re either never digested a single idea she’s said. Here, for example, in quotes Epstein has pulled out of the first essay in her book, ‘What is Capitalism,’ is a veritable pocket digest of everything Cowen would have had to ignore if he were to have honestly overlooked her unique views about his own field:
**** "It is philosophy that defines and establishes the epistemological criteria to guide human knowledge in general and specific sciences in particular. Political economy came into prominence in the nineteenth century, in the era of philosophy’s post-Kantian disintegration, and no one rose to check its premises or to challenge its base.
"Implicitly, uncritically, and by default, political economy accepted as its axioms the fundamental tenets of collectivism. Political economists—including the advocates of capitalism—defined their science as the study of the management or direction or organisation or manipulation of a 'community’s' or a nation’s 'resources.' The nature of these 'resources' was not defined; their communal ownership was taken for granted—and the goal of political economy was assumed to be the study of how to utilise these 'resources' for 'the common good.'"
This view is virtually unquestioned in Cowen’s field, yet he overlooks the challenge.
**** "Political economy was, in effect, a science starting in midstream: it observed that men were producing and trading, it took for granted that they had always done so and always would—it accepted this fact as the given, requiring no further consideration—and it addressed itself to the problem of how to devise the best way for the 'community' to dispose of human effort."
See for example most of modern macro- and microeconomics as practiced by everyone from Cowen on down. Cowen ignores that challenge too.
**** "The American philosophy of the Rights of Man was never grasped fully by European intellectuals. Europe’s predominant idea of emancipation consisted of changing the concept of man as a slave of the absolute state embodied by a king, to the concept of man as a slave of the absolute state embodied by “the people”—i.e., switching from slavery to a tribal chief into slavery to the tribe. A non-tribal view of existence could not penetrate the mentalities that regarded the privilege of ruling material producers by physical force as a badge of nobility."
"Thus Europe’s thinkers did not notice the fact that during the nineteenth century, the galley slaves had been replaced by the inventors of steamboats, and the village blacksmiths by the owners of blast furnaces, and they went on thinking in such terms (such contradictions in terms) as “wage slavery” or “the antisocial selfishness of industrialists who take so much from society without giving anything in return”—on the unchallenged axiom that wealth is an anonymous, social, tribal product.
"That notion has not been challenged to this day; it represents the implicit assumption and the base of contemporary political economy."
**** "If capitalism is to be understood, it is this tribal premise that has to be checked—and challenged.
"Mankind is not an entity, an organism, or a coral bush. The entity involved in production and trade is man. It is with the study of man—not of the loose aggregate known as a 'community'—that any science of the humanities has to begin.
"This issue represents one of the epistemological differences between the humanities and the physical sciences, one of the causes of the former’s well-earned inferiority complex in regard to the latter. A physical science would not permit itself (not yet, at least) to ignore or bypass the nature of its subject. Such an attempt would mean: a science of astronomy that gazed at the sky, but refused to study individual stars, planets, and satellites—or a science of medicine that studied disease, without any knowledge or criterion of health, and took, as its basic subject of study, a hospital as a whole, never focusing on individual patients."
**** "A social system is a set of moral-political-economic principles embodied in a society’s laws, institutions, and government, which determine the relationships, the terms of association, among the men living in a given geographical area. It is obvious that these terms and relationships depend on an identification of man’s nature, that they would be different if they pertain to a society of rational beings or to a colony of ants. It is obvious that they will be radically different if men deal with one another as free, independent individuals, on the premise that every man is an end in himself—or as members of a pack, each regarding the others as the means to his ends and to the ends of 'the pack as a whole.'"
**** "The 'practical' justification of capitalism does not lie in the collectivist claim that it effects 'the best allocation of national resources.' Man is not a 'national resource' and neither is his mind—and without the creative power of man’s intelligence, raw materials remain just so many useless raw materials.
"The moral justification of capitalism does not lie in the altruist claim that it represents the best way to achieve 'the common good.' It is true that capitalism does—if that catch-phrase has any meaning—but this is merely a secondary consequence. The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man’s rational nature, that it protects man’s survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is: justice.”
**** "If one begins by defining the good of individual men, one will accept as proper only a society in which that good is achieved and achievable. But if one begins by accepting 'the common good' as an axiom and regarding individual good as its possible but not necessary consequence (not necessary in any particular case), one ends up with such a gruesome absurdity as Soviet Russia, a country professedly dedicated to “the common good,” where, with the exception of a minuscule clique of rulers, the entire population has existed in subhuman misery for over two generations.
"What makes the victims and, worse, the observers accept this and other similar historical atrocities, and still cling to the myth of 'the common good'? The answer lies in philosophy—in philosophical theories on the nature of moral values."
All profound and important points; and every one ducked by what amounts to a hack reading.
I think I've proven my point that there is a lot of profound material here--completely original material that no philosopher or economist before Rand came close to approximating. But please read the whole first essay "What is Capitalism?" to grasp her whole argument.