In my junior year of high school, I read Rand's novel We the Living. A few weeks later I read The Fountainhead. I found these two novels intensely absorbing. I couldn't put them down. I finished both books in just a few days.
I saved Atlas Shrugged for the summer. Late in July I checked out a copy from the local library and had a go at it. I confidently believed I would be able to finish the book in less than a week. But this is not how it went down. It actually took me five weeks to finish Atlas, and I had to really push my way through the book. It just didn't grab me like Rand's other two major novels had. I really didn't give a fig for any of the characters. They seemed unreal and one-dimensional. I found the tone of the book relentlessly didactic and moralistic. I felt that Rand was trying to preach at me, which I found off-putting. Sermonizing and moral indignation no doubt have their place, but not in a novel. When I discovered later than Rand considered Atlas her best work, I could hardly believe it.
During my freshman year of college I read the title essay to Rand's For the New Intellectual. I found the work unconvincing. The theory of history she introduced seemed interesting enough, but she didn't offer any proof for it. She expected me to accept all her contentions on faith, all the while pretending she was following "reason." Nonetheless, I wanted to figure out whether she was right. Did her theory have any merit at all? If so, how could it be tested?
During my junior year of college, I began studying Objectivism in greater detail. At that time, I didn't have sufficient philosophical literacy or knowledge of science to fully understand what might be wrong with Rand's thought. While I already had concluded that Rand was wrong about human nature and aesthetics, I still thought there might be something to her metaphysics and epistemology. I sympathized with their broad conclusions (i.e., realism and objectivity), just as I sympathized with the broad conclusions of her ethics and politics (i.e., individualism and freedom). I took several Objectivist taped courses, including Peikoff's lectures on Objectivism. In this first official run through of Rand's philosophy, I didn't find much to quibble with other than Rand's theory of emotions and her aesthetics. I knew, however, that I would have to become far more philosophically literate before I could come to a final verdict, but at the time I believed of Rand's formulations showed definite promise. To be sure, there was much that I didn't fully appreciate. I couldn't figure out, for example, how Rand's "solution" to the problem of universals really solved the problem. I expected some carefully worked out argument, but all she provided was raw assertion. Other aspects of Rand's philosophy struck me the same way, which inevitably led to the question: how did Rand know that her various claims had the stamp of truth to them? Rand and her followers spend so much of their time emphasizing "reason," proof, and validation; and yet we find so little of these elements in the actual philosophy!
Nonetheless, whatever issues I had with Rand's formulations, in those early days I found her philosophy fascinating. Yes, there might be problems, even big problems, with her various contentions, but these problems I speculated might be fixable. Then I heard Peikoff make remarks during a question and answer period of one of his Ford Hall Forum lectures that made me realize the problems with Rand's philosophy went far deeper than I had heretofore imagined. Somebody had asked Peikoff how long it would take for Objectivism to "win." Peikoff replied that it shouldn't take all that long: if courses on Objectivism could simply be introduced into the Ivy League colleges, Objectivism's victory would become a matter of course (or words to that effect). That Objectivism's greatest living proponent should believe such a thing shocked me. I knew from my own experience with Marxists, socialists, and "progressives" that this could not possibly be true; that such people came to their beliefs for psychological reasons that had nothing to do with Immanual Kant or the problem of universals; and also that institutions in civilized societies had a momentum all their own that were eroding our freedoms irrespective of anyone's will to the contrary. The fact that Peikoff believed that merely by teaching Objectivism at the nation's top universities, this could lead to massive changes in the political direction of the country, struck me as delusional in the extreme. That Peikoff claimed to a champion of "reason" and "objectivity," zealously opposed to "evading reality," only made it worse. I felt I needed to explain how a philosophy ostensibly dedicated to rationality and factual reality could misfire so badly.
When I questioned other Objectivists about this issue, they merely regarded me with a kind of vague irritation and incredulity. They couldn't understand why I regarded Peikoff's claim as so absurd. "People have free will," I was told repeatedly. "But that free will has tendencies that predispose some people to be statists and socialists," I would counter. "No it doesn't," they would insist. And one Objectivist read me the passage in Atlas Shrugged where Galt argues that tendencies of character cannot exist because they contradicted the principle of free will: "If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free," pontificates Rand's moralizing hero.
At this time I was reading, for a course at the university, Joseph Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy --- a book that made a big impact on my thinking at the time. Schumpeter had a very different view of how history worked than we find in Rand, one that struck me as more realistic and in accordance to what I was seeing in everyday life. As Schumpeter explains:
However, whether favorable or unfavorable, value judgments about capitalist performance are of little interest. For mankind is not free to choose. This is not only because the mass of people are not in a position to compare the alternatives rationally and always accept what they are being told. There is a much deeper reason for this. Things economic and social move by their own momentum and the ensuing situations compel individuals and groups to behave in certain ways whatever they may wish to do --- not indeed by destroying their freedom of choice but by shaping the choosing mentalities and by narrowing the list of possibilities from which to choose. If this is the quintessence of Marxism then we all of us got to be Marxists. [129-130]
This is the prelude to Schumpeter's famous theory that capitalism destroys itself by its own success. This seemed to me a far more plausible theory than anything to be found in Rand, because it was based in human nature as revealed in history and social science. Rand's philosophical view of historical change seemed to me little more than wishful thinking: a view propagated by powerless intellectuals who were too cowardly to accept their own impotence.
In 1989, the year I read Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, the Berlin Wall came down, and a few years later the Soviet Union "collapsed." At the time, the predominant view was that socialism had been vanquished forever. Yet how long did it take for the ideology socialism, like a dog's vomit, to make a noisome return? Within a generation, we had a whole new generation of radicals wanting the same things as before but using different words to describe them. Radical leftism ebbs and flows: it afflicts liberal societies in cycles. Hence it waxed intense during the thirties, sixties, and in the last decade, and receded in the fifties and eighties. But each cycle seems to get a little crazier. Or perhaps it is merely the case that the opposition is less rigorous. The abundance of capitalist society has made some people weak and others unhappy; and the unhappy are staging temper tantrums to bully the weak into concessions. Immanual Kant has nothing to do with any of it. It's just human nature doing its thing.
Rand saw human nature as the product of philosophy. Human beings, in her view, were bundles of premises. This is why she believed that social outcomes could be changed through arguing about abstruse topics in metaphysics and epistemology. But she is just wrong about this. Human nature is a product of evolution, not philosophy. One of the issues we are facing in the present age is that capitalism, in league with science and technology, has transformed the world so dramatically that evolution has not been able to keep up. Human beings now find themselves in a society they did not evolve to live in. That's part of the reason why there are so many unhappy people. It has nothing to do with philosophy. It arises from the conditions of everyday life. These people on the "woke" left are genuinely distressed. Or if they're not distressed they nevertheless feel genuine moral outrage at the inequality and "unfairness" of the capitalist social order. This moral outrage is not the product of philosophical theories, but rather, the theories were devised to explain the feelings of outrage. As Jonathan Haidt has shown, morality is largely intuitive. It isn't the product of ideas or consciously directed thinking. It is the product of genetics and circumstance. People are hardwired to see the world differently, and part of this involves how individuals react to inequality. You can argue against these intuitions until your blue in the face --- it won't make a jot of difference. Rand is wrong about the role philosophy plays in determining social outcomes because she's wrong about human nature. While her errors in philosophy won't make any difference to social outcomes, they do make a difference to our understanding of how world works. If you want to understand what causes radical leftism or right-wing authoritarianism or any other social phenomena that may end up playing a decisive role in shaping the future course of Western Civilization, you can't reach that understanding through Objectivist principles.
The reason I have gone into this issue in such detail is I wanted to make clear that I did not become a critic of Objectivism over some obscure or trivial issue. I was fascinated by the problem of ideology. Why did some people become "liberal" and others "conservative"? When Peikoff declared that all Objectivism needed to "win" was to be taught in the Ivy League, I realized that I could not look to Rand's philosophy to provide answers to this question. But there was more at stake than just this question of the origins of ideology and political conviction. Peikoff's declaration about the future prospects of Objectivism seemed so alienated from reality that it raised issues as to the quality of Objectivist thought as a whole. It turned out that being wrong about human nature might be an indication of far more catastrophic errors. I decided I needed to examine Rand's contentions far more closely and critically than what I had thus far endeavored. But that would require becoming philosophically literate --- which would be a task in itself.
[Note: my latest book on Objectivism, The Faux-Rationality of Ayn Rand, is available here.]