Thursday, November 11, 2010
Ayn Rand Style Asperger Syndrome
I have recently started listening to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. The novel is over fifty hours long (over 1,300 pages in print) so this is likely to take me a while, but I figured that, as a libertarian, this was a book that I needed to read. Ayn Rand, as an opponent of collectivism and a defender of radical individualism, is a heroine to many libertarians. Atlas Shrugged depicts a nightmare big government future where companies are forced to operate not for a profit but for the "public good" and do so miserably. Under the leadership of John Galt though, a collection of the nation's most talented individuals (businessmen and artists) fight back by going on strike and running away, refusing to work any longer for a system that devalues them as parasites.
I see two sides to Ayn Rand, the libertarian and the "meta-libertarian." Ayn Rand was certainly a libertarian in her opposition to government social programs and her belief that individuals are the ones who best understand their own personal good and how to pursue it. Getting the government out of people's personal lives (say by legalizing all drugs, getting rid of public schools and ending welfare and social security) is something that all libertarians can agree to. This still leaves an open question as to what should come next. As Libertarianism is the belief that people should be left to pursue their own good in their own way," by definition it can say nothing as to what good people should pursue once they are left to pursue it. It is here that Ayn Rand brings the "meta-libertarian" element. Not only was she opposed to government force being used to get people to act for the public good, she was categorically against people acting for the public good, to do anything not for their own personal selfish best interest.
My roommate pointed me to a recent blog post by one of our favorite writers, John Scalzi, musing about Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged. Scalzi has a lot of respect for Rand as a writer, who can turn out an entertaining novel even if it is "nerd revenge porn" and John Galt is a "genocidal prick." What particularly caught my attention was Scalzi's observation that "as with any audience with a large number of nerds in it, a non-trivial number of Atlas Shrugged readers are possibly far enough along the Asperger spectrum that they don't recognize humanity does not in fact easily suss out into Randian capitalists on one side and craven socialist losers on the other… ." I was prepared for Libertarianism to be challenged, that Asperger syndrome came into play caught me by surprise.
I do see Asperger syndrome thinking and Libertarianism as being linked even if one does not have to lead to the other. Aspergers tend to struggle with executive thinking, putting together large-scale plans with the intention of ordering around complex systems with many different parts (say even taking charge of a multi-course dinner). The Asperger is good at dealing with his own narrowly focused area of knowledge. If Libertarianism is anything it is the belief in the utter irrelevancy of large-scale executive thinking. The hidden hand of the marketplace means that millions of very "Asperger" minds can practice their particular field of expertise without the need for a "neurotypical" mind at the top to oversee and organize everything. The executive thinking will take care of itself through the power of rational self-interest. Furthermore, the Asperger mind is one that operates based on abstract laws. The strength of Libertarianism is precisely its appeal to such abstract laws. If people are supposed to be left to pursue their own good in their own way as long as they are not causing direct physical harm to others to the extent that they have the right to follow any religion or sexual orientation then they must also be left to pursue their own good to ingest or inject any substance that suits them. If people cannot be forced to pay taxes to fund a government church against their personal beliefs, how can their taxes go to pay for public schools that teach things that go against their beliefs?
Does this make me a Randian Objectivist? Hardly. While I support the individual against the government, once the government is out of the way I become an ardent communitarian. I assume that human beings are social creatures who need each other in order to survive. I have no desire to see any of this accomplished through government. Take the government out of the social sphere and let everyone man join a community of his choice (likely one organized around a traditional religion) and work through this community to benefit humanity as a whole.
So what is the relationship between Asperger syndrome and Ayn Rand? Are people on the spectrum more likely to be self-absorbed egoists, crafting theoretical towers in the sky heedless of how real people live their lives? Do not look at me. I am just a moderate libertarian.