I think Arnold Kling has hit the nail on the head with regard to Ayn Rand’s enduring appeal. What he says isn’t the whole story (call me old-fashioned, but I still think making convincing arguments has something to do with it), but it’s hard to argue that it isn’t an important part of it.
The thesis is that Rand appeals to “low agreeableness” people – that is, people who rate “agreeableness” comparatively low as a virtue and therefore resent all the evidence that they see around them that being agreeable pays dividends (in terms of career advancement by having the right connections, etc.). Kling suspects – and I suspect he’s right – that Libertarians are disproportionately represented in this crowd. We are people who, for whatever reason, don’t make the right friends, are unwilling to brownnose to get where we want to go, and generally just like to be left alone to do our own things. For obvious reasons, if you’re such a person, then meritocracy takes on a greater importance for you than for most. Ayn Rand is nothing if not a pro-meritocracy extremist, and she underscores the point by making her heroes hard to get along with. Suffering fools gladly is not something that her characters do well, and given the adversity they tend to face and the way they react to it, they cannot be accused by even the most disingenuous reviewer of having exploited social connections to get there they got. Rand is comforting for us “disagreeables” because she reassures us that if you just keep putting your best foot forward and giving the finger to people who deserve it, you’ll eventually achieve all your goals. Keep on keepin’ on – that’s something we CAN do. Playing golf to get a promotion? That not so much.
This will be taken by many as a denigration of Rand, an attempt to paint her as a panderer – but I don’t think it should be. It is as good as inarguable that the world would be a better place were it a total meritocracy, and it IS inarguable that there is a brazen hypocrisy to advancement by agreeableness. To see that this latter point is so, ask yourself when the last time was you heard someone admit to a crowded room that “I promoted Bill because he makes such great cocktails,” or “Shelly got the job because she flirts with me and makes me feel attractive,” or “I voted to give Jane tenure because she finds ways to cite my papers.” As recently as never, right? Right. And in fact, I think we can go a step further. I think the main reason why so many people put up with so much bullshit without complaining, even when there is no obvious immediate reward for doing so, is because they fear that maintaining a general tolerance for hypocrisy will benefit them in the long run. It’s sort of like supporting the welfare state because of the outside chance that you’ll fall on hard times and need social assistance: if the world were completely honest, a lot of people who are afraid of the verdict would actually be judged on the quality of their work. Can’t have that…
If Rand can be accused of anything, then of making a virtue out of being DISagreeable. Here there is cause for some blame. A lot of people have taken the stark lines with which she draws her characters as a license to be an asshole, and that is indeed unfortunate. But this cricism only goes so far in the end, as it’s based on mistaking style for substance – on par with blaming Star Wars for all those kids who actually practice summoning the Force.
In fact, I think far from shielding – what do you call people like me, anyway? How about “anagreeable?” You know, the a from amoral – not disagreeable per se, just indifferent to whether we are agreeable or not. OK, I think far from shielding anagreeable people from reality, she prepares us for it. Think of The Fountainhead. Howard Roark wasn’t an instant success, after all. He toiled in obscurity and poverty for most of his adult life, was a virgin until his late 30s, and when he finally did come to the public’s attention and garner some measure of financial success, he was immediately the target of a pretty nasty smear campaign. Melodramatic I’ll buy, but it can hardly be accused of sugarcoating the price for refusing to join the country club!
No, I think Kling’s right on. What’s more, I think Rand would’ve agreed.