Former regulatory czar Cass Sunstein (and co-author of the paternalist manifesto Nudge) just wrote a piece contrasting Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged with communist-turn-conservative Whittaker Chambers’ autobiography, Witness.
Both Rand and Chambers have had a profound influence on conservatives, Sunstein notes, and yet they had profound differences—eloquently illustrated by Chambers’ notorious 1957 “review” of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in National Review, which includes a ludicrous comparison of Rand’s hymn to the free rational mind—with the Nazi Holocaust.
I won’t regurgitate the entirety of Chambers’ review or Sunstein’s generally positive summary of it. But I do think it’s worth pausing on this paragraph.
Chambers goes so far as to link Rand with Karl Marx. Both, he says, are motivated by a kind of materialism, in which people’s happiness lies not with God or with anything spiritual, and much less with an appreciation of human limitations, but only with the use of their “own workaday hands and ingenious brain.”
In an unpublished response to the Chambers review, Rand’s friend and student Leonard Peikoff responded to this charge, noting that:
Mr. Chambers declares that Miss Rand’s philosophy is materialism. How can a philosophy which worships the creative, thinking mind be called materialism? How can a philosophy be called materialism which declares that one should go on strike against the world and abandon all its goods rather than renounce his mind? It could only be so called by a mystic such as Mr. Chambers, for whom there are only two alternatives: either you love life on earth—in which case you are a vulgar materialist; or you hate life on earth and believe in a mystical super-dimension whose existence and nature you know by blinding revelations—in which case your anti-materialism consists in hating everything material.
I would only add that the point Chambers missed, while admittedly a challenging new philosophic view, is not exactly subtle. Early in Atlas Shrugged, the novel’s heroine Dagny Taggart listens as a bum tells her that
There isn’t any human spirit. Man is just a low-grade animal, without intellect, without soul, without virtues or moral values. . . . Spirit? . . . There’s no spirit involved in manufacturing or sex. Yet these are man’s only concerns. Matter—that’s all men know or care about. As witness our great industries. . .built by vulgar materialists with the aims, the interests and the moral sense of hogs. It doesn’t take any morality to turn out a ten-ton truck on an assembly line.
Dagny listens in silent wonder at “what had destroyed him, what error on the way could bring a man to this.” Her own view is made explicit soon after, in one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, the first run of the John Galt Line.
The passage is too lengthy to quote, but the essence is contained in Dagny’s thought: “First, the vision—then the physical shape to express it. First, the thought—then the purposeful motion down the straight line of a single track to a chosen goal. Could one have any meaning without the other?”
Toward the end of the novel, another hero elaborates on this idea:
“Dagny, we who’ve been called ‘materialists’ by the killers of the human spirit, we’re the only ones who know how little value or meaning there is in material objects as such, because we’re the ones who create their value and meaning.”
For Rand, there is a union or harmony between spirit and body. Without material values, human life is not possible, and without the human mind, no material values are possible. The creation of material goods is thus a profound intellectual, moral, and spiritual achievement: It consists of using one’s mind to reshape matter in pursuit of human purposes.
Now, unless he simply hasn’t read the novel he is criticizing, Sunstein could not have missed this point. Rand says it too often and too clearly. So why would he denounce Rand for holding a position that she explicitly disclaimed?
Sunstein’s real qualm with Rand is not that she ignored man’s spirit, but that she was a passionate champion of man’s mind.
Sunstein praises Chambers because, like other conservatives, Chambers “emphasizes the limits of human knowledge, engages with particulars, and tends to favor incremental change.” Sunstein praises Judge Learned Hand, “who said at the dawn of World War II that the ‘spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.’” (Was that the attitude of Thomas Jefferson? Could that attitude have stopped Adolph Hitler?)
Such an attitude would be attractive to Sunstein, who has made a career out of finding excuses for restricting freedom.
Rand, on the other hand, held that man’s mind is capable of achieving knowledge, including the certainty that the “spirit of liberty” is right. A horde of self-doubting conservatives constitutes no obstacle to Sunstein’s agenda—a wall of self-confident, rational defenders of freedom does.