Sunday, April 08, 2012

Beware the Kiss of Ayn Rand

Mark Skousen (7 April) is proud of the reception of his The Making of Modern Economics HERE

Good news. My book, The Making of Modern Economics, now in its second edition, won recognition from the Ayn Rand Institute, which published its first “top ten must-read books in economics,” The Making of Modern Economics was ranked second, right behind Henry Hazlitt’s classic Economics in One Lesson. I’m not complaining, since Steve Mariotti, president of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), recently wrote that “Mark Skousen is the Henry Hazlitt of our time who can explain complex issues in a clear way.

“My book tells the bold story of economics, with free-market economist Adam Smith as the heroic figure who comes under attack by the Marxists, socialists and Keynesians, but triumphs in the end with the help of the Austrians, Chicagoans, and supply-siders. It recently won the Choice Book Award for Outstanding Academic Title, and is highly popular among students and intelligent laymen who love a good story with lots of anecdotes and pictures. As John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, says, “I’ve read Mark’s book three times. It’s fun to read on every page.”

Mark Skousen, rightly, is proud of receiving good reviews (with acclaim!). Most authors receive far less acclaim than they thing they deserve, hence, it is gratifying to receive notice (even critical notice) than to experience the usual fate that awaits most authors for their creations. It was David Hume who remarked, a trifle bitterly, that his great master Work, “A Treatise on Human Nature” (1739-40), “fell stillborn from the press”. Today, it is recognized as one of the most important philosophical works of the Enlightenment.

I do not hold such high thoughts about a book that is praised by the Ayn Rand Institute and included in its “top ten must-read books in economics”. Ayn Rand is a major source for the widespread confusion among readers who believe that Rand’s “selfishness is a virtue” had something to do with Adam Smith’s philosophy of the role “self-interest”. This widespread confusion was helped by Paul Samuelson’s attribution of the benefits of selfishness to the public good to Adam Smith in his “Economics: an analytical introduction”, McGraw-Hill (1948 and its twenty editions to 2010).

Ayn Rand’s philosophy of “individualism” and “selfish virtues” closely resembles the ideas of Bernard Mandeville’s in “Private Vice, Public Virtue” (1724), which Adam Smith described as “licentious” in his Moral Sentiments (1759). Even Hollywood script-writers got in the act in the “Wall Street” film about Gordon Gekko, of “greed is good” fame and “Beautiful Mind” in the “pick up” competition and the screen John Nash’s comments on where Adam Smith was “wrong”.

So, good luck from the Authors’ union to Mark for the sales of his book. Whether it will spread insight into the authentic legacy of Adam Smith is another mater. I am not optimistic, given its endorsement by Ayn Rand's heirs.

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Blogger airth10 said...

Yes, there is something unsettling about Aye Rand's interpretation of the IH metaphor.

Nevertheless, I cut her some slack in her belief that 'selfishness is a virtue'. I see it mostly as a reaction, a pushback and a counterbalance to the overly liberal economic theories that often have won the day.

Rand's philosophy is like the one side of the coin, balancing against the other and those who are never far from taking away our liberty. Of course it is an exaggeration of reality. But one often has to exaggerate to be heard and be taken seriously.

10:11 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Whatever Ayn Rand's personal experiences of Russia in the early 20th century, her interpretation of Adam Smith has nothing to do with what Smith meant.
She was certainly taken seriously by a generation or two of students - like many students in the 1960s-70s, I read her books and her magazine, 'Objectivist.' There are several You Tube videos of her addressing students as a Feminist.

'Selfishness' was not one of Smith's virtues.


2:55 pm  

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