Mike Wallace Interviews Ayn Rand About Objectivism

My dad sent me an incredible thirty minute interview of Ayn Rand by Mike Wallace in 1959 which I just watched on my iPhone during a treadmill run.  I’m a fan of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead and, while I’m intrigued by a lot of Ayn Rand’s philosophy and writing, I don’t consider myself an Objectivist

One of the quotes I most love is John Galt’s statement “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for the sake of mine.”  A while ago my mom made a painting out of this quote (it currently hangs in my partner Jason Mendelson’s house.)

Regardless of my philosophical perspective, I thought this interview was fascinating.  While it’s 50 years old, the format and content is timeless.  I think Ayn Rand was brilliant in her articulation of her philosophy and her perspective and did an excellent job of engaging with Wallace without running him over.

As we exit 2009, I encourage you to watch this, if only to have it stimulate your thinking.  I expect some of you will love this and some will hate it, but I challenge anyone to say that “it didn’t cause me to think or react.”

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  • Thanks for posting this! Seems just as relevant today as 50 years ago…

  • Thank you for sharing this fascinating interview.
    "No good will, only self interests" We can be more selfish and create great things for our communities.

  • Sophomoric. Belongs in an all night beer party of English majors at a liberal arts college.

    Rand has lots of brain cells firing, but the main cause appears to be trying obsessively and emotionally, with disastrously poor insight and judgment, to get some security from some anxieties from something scary in her background.

    Wallace reveals much more of his thinking than I have seen before, shows that he is an idiot, that has swallowed some super-simple Upper West Side sophomoric nonsense too common in the MSN now. Should never take seriously the 'thinking' of a newsie!

    Rand in some Russian romantic style uses too many terms with special and apparently obscure but omitted definitions.

    Both set up straw men to knock them down.

    Their foundations for the status quo are too extreme; can support the status quo much more simply and much less provocatively.

    • What’s wrong with an all night beer party of English majors at a liberal arts college?You appear to be in the category of “hated it”, but it does appear to have elicited a reaction!

      • Bill Mosby

        If you want to take this to an entirely different level of commentary, try putting it in a diary on Daily Kos!

        Just kidding; for the love of God, don't do it!

        • I just checked my math and physics books and, yup, I didn't forget; instead, "The Daily Kos" is not in there, I'm pretty sure. Hilbert space and Maxwell's equations I see, but not Kos. Should I check again? I don't think my college girlfriend (I was in college; she was 4 years younger; she understood some things not about calculus) would know either, or about Rand!

          No, I looked at something in Kos once, found that they made some serious error in fact, made a note, gave up, and didn't go back. Besides, they seemed to have some hot political agenda, "about what, I have no idea"!

          On people, I got much more from E. Fromm than E. lit.

          I'm out of my depth here: Below they are discussing Vonnegut, and all I know about him was from the Dangerfield movie 'Back to School'! Since I was once a prof in an MBA program, the B-school part of that movie was terrific, right on target. The Sally Kellerman's English prof's soaring ecstasy over 'writers' is part of why I was glad when required English classes were done!

  • Interesting interview to watch going into '10. Thanks for the post.

  • Parveen Kalet

    Thank you very much for posting. I’ve never seen these clips.

    You may not remember the Beers With Brad Feld event in Vancouver. But I’m a huge Ayn Rand and Robert Pirsig fan. I don’t necessarily agree with all of Ayn Rands philosophy. However, I have massive respect for a person that writes about work ethic and also publishes multiple works that are +1000 pages.

    There are not a whole lot of people in history that talk the talk and walk the walk. And a woman, too. Even more rare.

  • Who is John Galt?

  • What's wrong with the beer party?

    Well, strictly, the most I suggested wrong was that it was "sophomoric"!

    I was a sophomore once! I didn't think that either the English class or the beer parties got very far and preferred making progress with mathematics, physics, and my girlfriend! If the English class had actually had any decent understanding of people, emotions, women, and love, then I would have made much faster progress with my girlfriend!

    I liked the interview as an exercise. There was a time when I would not have been able to have guessed just what was driving Rand (or Wallace). Of course, can't make such diagnoses from only the interview, BUT: From seeing enough in people begin to see some patterns. Then, from the interview, pick what appears to be a very likely pattern and make the diagnosis!

  • I read Atlas Shrugged a long time ago. I don't remember the book being as conservative as Rand was. Of course Rand was coming from USSR and wanted to be as far away as from a planned economy as possible – but I remember the book being more about good vs. evil, entrepreneurs vs. the establishment, and smart vs. dumb.

    As Rand was so conservative, the objectivists see the book as a prophecy of the current bail outs and social good triumphing over poor management, but there are equal accusations on the prior administration. The Government's lunacy around things like putting oil people in charge of the EPA or the whole FEMA/Katrina thing seem equally right out of Atlas.

    I see Atlas Shrugged less political (left/right) and more about how situations get out of control. It doesn't matter if it is visas, stem cells, net neutrality, or patent rules – the establishment can easily threaten innovation – and the innovators may some day leave. Vonnegut wasn't much different, but his satire didn't really hit on wealth redistribution. His "ethical birth control pill" (WttMH) probably hit a few nerves in a similar way.

    • For what it's worth, Objectivists are generally not fans of the Bush administration, and would agree that there are faults on both sides of the aisle. Remember, the current wave of bank bailouts started under Bush! And Ayn Rand didn't consider herself a conservative at all–see MichaelM's comment.

  • Well said – I especially love the comparison to Vonnegut’s WttMH – perfect.

  • MichaelM

    Ayn Rand was not a conservative.

    To define "conservative", one must first recognize that it as a political distinction, and that politics is a branch of philosophy. Politics is an extension of ethics in the context of life as an individual human being into the context of life as in individual living in a society of others. No politics can be formulated or defined or understood independent of its philosophical framework and underpinnings.

    Conservatism appeals to one who is an intrinsicist, one for whom absolute truth and value exist independently from man, the identifier and valuer, and are fully accessible only through some other than natural means or source that can serve as the authority.

    Possible authorities are many: a god, a religious doctrine or tradition, a bible, history, a Constitution, the Founding Fathers, etc. Such truths are eternal and must be conserved, even in the face of their failure, a dilemma that will be resolved by rationalization. Their downfall is that having rejected reason, their truths cannot be objectively verified and are thus easy prey for erosion (Bush).

    Now consider the opposite side of the liberal/conservative dichotomy. They are the subjectivists who discount the capacity of reason in its totality. For them there can be no absolute truths ever. All knowledge is empirical and transient. Its validity is constantly subject to change (Obama) — what was true in the past does not have to be true now. The "progress" of progressive liberals entails perpetual movement from one set of truths to the next and the next and …

    So the ultimate source of the left/liberal and right/conservative division is a false alternative turned to in the wake of doubting — to one degree or another — one's own capacity to access objective truths solely by processing the information of sensory perceptions (physical capacity) with one's reason (intellectual capacity). Acceptance of this mind/spirit-body dichotomy forces the choice of one or the other as the source of truth. The need for some system for determining truth cannot be evaded. Life is a series of choices and every choice necessitates a standard.

    Since the conservative right holds the ultimate form and nature of knowledge, truth, and reality to be spiritual, it is that aspect of man's life they will want to control and dictate while leaving man free to pursue a material life that is devalued as transient and insignificant. The liberal left discounts the spiritual content of man's mind regarding truth, knowledge and reality as nothing more than a product of emotion and whim without any actual universal significance, and so they leave man free in that realm while seeking control of the material aspect of man's life. As Ayn Rand explained, each will try to control that aspect of man's life that is important to them and leave the rest free.

    It is Rand who grasped the intrinsic/subjective dichotomy as the explanation of left-right choices of men that lead them to tyrannize opposing aspects of man's life. Rand's epistemology, ethics and politics reject that dichotomy. By demonstrating how man can derive absolute truths from perceptions with reason by restricting such conclusions to fully evidenced contexts, she replaces the false dichotomy with their integration: the inseparable efficacious interaction of the mind exercising reason applied to physical action as man's essential means to survive and thrive in accordance with his nature.

    From that recognition arises an ethical mandate for autonomy in the application of reason to action in the service of life, Further, it is the extension of that mandate into the socio-economic context (politics) requires the concepts of liberty and the individual rights that define it. And since liberty exists only to the degree that physical coercion is absent, Rand's anti-conservative, anti-liberal politics requires that:

    No person may initiate the use of physical force to gain, withhold, or destroy any tangible or intangible value owned by another who either created it or acquired it in a voluntary exchange.

    It is the requirement of this principle that the sole task of government is to guarantee that all human interactions shall be voluntary that no conservative or liberal could ever endorse.

    • Extraordinarily well written.  Anyone who is interested in a short summary of Rand’s philosophy as contrasted to either “conservative” or “liberal” labels should read this carefully.  Your last two paragraphs explaining Rand’s “anti-liberal / anti-conservative” politics is crystal clear.

    • Wow. I am with Brad. Very well written.

  • Thanks for posting the interviews as they have rounded out my view of Ayn and objectivism. I have naively cheered Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden as they fought the system and the unknown force. Their motives were pure and admirable.

    Unfortunately, reality is not so clean cut and straightforward. Ayn's comment that "under a free system no one could acquire a monopoly on anything." "…all monopolies have been established with government help" is shortsighted. The robber baron's of the 1900's illustrated what happens when it is survival of the fittest. Here we are over a 100 years later and the same arguments are still playing out only in different industries.

    While I applaud the traits that Ayn extols, I have to agree with others that the implementation is akin to a fantasy football league or best left to a beer party discussion.

    • I’d encourage you to continue to naively cheer Dagny and Hank.  Interestingly, if you take Rand’s philosophical view at its simplest incarnation, her assertion “under a free system no one could acquire a monopoly on anything” may work.  I actually think she said “on anything of value” – or at least implied it in the discussion around the Nevada uranium deposit.  Interestingly, the Robber Barron’s had huge government help – it was definitely not “survival of the fittest.”  And today’s government is all over the economic dynamics – there is no free system in existence, only a theory of a free market and an approximation of some free market behavior in the context of a very significant and heavy government involvement.

      • To understand Rand's position on monopolies it helps to know that she saw a fundamental distinction between economic power and political power. So a coercive monopoly granted to one company by the government, through outlawing competition, is fundamentally different from a "monopoly" a company acquires without government help, just by being the best or most efficient player in the market. I don't think she even considered the latter a monopoly.

        • Good point. One could envision a scenario where google is basically a "monopoly". However, that monopoly relies on the greater society and network effects. That requires everyone to have motivation to contribute to that monopoly's bottom line. Google therefore is kept in check and wouldn't want to risk doing much that might shake up the makeup of their network. I don't think Rand ever contemplated this type of monopoly – only corporatist monopolies.

  • egoist

    Post a pic of that Galt quote, why don't you. * there are lots of Ayn Rand audios / videos at http://www.aynrand.org
    This one is very good http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=r

  • Thanks for posting those interviews; I've not seen them for ages!

    Regarding "Atlas Shrugged," you and your readers might find my still-in-progress collection of podcasts on the novel of interest.


    — Diana Hsieh. Ph.D, Philosophy

  • Thanks, for posting, Brad. Just the other day I was flipping through a recently published book of Ayn Rand interviews, "Objectively Speaking". It has a transcript of this and many other interviews–fascinating stuff.

  • Mohan

    Great post – and it's clear Ayn Rand has a sharp brain. Good thinker. I'd be keen to know if her way of looking at things (objectivism) is perfect? Not sure why Mike Wallace didn't ask her if her way is 'perfect' (i.e. – does she think her objectivist views are perfect) for the general society? Is it completely failsafe – if not are objectivist tradeoffs better than collectivist tradeoffs, and if so why?

    My opinion – is pretty obvious. You can't either be entirely collectivist or entirely objectivist. Human survival will organically drive people to adopt the path that can get them to success. Like a human body, most of the time the system will self correct based on required levels of performance (just like "reasoning"). Sometimes an external medicine maybe required though.

    Long story short – my gut tells me that although objectivism maybe a great start or can keep people naturally in check for long periods of time, ultimately, you will lead into subjectivist (intangible) areas irrespective of what the field is – economy, medicine, software, etc – whatever.

  • jpball

    I love this thread and look forward to Brad's posts, especially following a good rest.

    I am reminded again, (and take every fair opportunity to remind Brad) that Ayn wrote novels; fiction in fact otherwise known as contrafactual events. No doubt she promotes interesting theories through her fictional world, but it remains, fiction.

    Her theories may have seen wider accession if written as fables instead of the heavy-handed messaging promoted by her writing style and behavior.

    I am also reminded of the preponderance of Objectivists (many of whom are my friends) who attended MIT. Is there something in the water? 😉

    • It’s probably in the beer, not in the water.  Or maybe other substances that college students partake in.While Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead were fiction, don’t forget that Rand wrote plenty of non-fiction such as For the New Intellectual, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, as well as a significant number of essays.  I’ve read some of it and found some of as impenetrable as I find some other philosophy (which means I ask my wife Amy, or my friend Dave Jilk, who have much more patience with philosophy, to explain it to me in simple terms, which they occasionally succeed at.)I personally enjoy the heavy handedness of both her writing and behavior – I find it intriguing and stimulating.  I also am entertained by the polarization it drives – people are very binary in their response (love it or hate it), especially when underlying it she’s quite clear that it’s simply her philosophy.

  • The sad thing is, it's impossible to imagine such a substantive interview on a major network these days. Even 60 Minutes tends toward gotcha sensationalism over nuance.

    • You are so correct. If she were around today can you imagine how she would be treated by the media. I wonder how the Hannity's, O'reilly's", and Olbermann's of the world would treat her. Or would they just try to ignore her like they do now?

  • Harry Binswanger

    Yes, a lot of us Objectivists are MIT alums. Would it be too self-serving to say it's because we're smarter? Yeah, it would. Okay, try this: engineers tend to respect both rationality and innovations to conquer nature. That's what her novels celebrate. Hank Rearden, in Atlas Shrugged, invents a new metal alloy, John Galt invests a motor that runs off of atmospheric static electricity (which actually has been done, by the way).

    Another factor: she spoke at MIT in 1962 (I was in the audience) and appeared for almost 20 years, annually, at the Ford Hall Forum in Boston.

    • Interesting that the popularity amongst MIT alums is being discussed here. I'm in the middle of Atlas Shrugged and was just contemplating how the same values/characteristics displayed by Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart are upheld by MIT students.

      I think Harry's right, revering rationality and conquering the natural world are part of it But I also think MIT students tend to self-identify heavily with Hank and Dagny for some other reasons : they're ambitious, very tired, and over-worked.

  • In addition to being ambitious, very tired, and over-worked, they often feel it is “them against the world.”  Or at least I felt that way when I was at MIT.  I like to describe MIT undergrads as being segmented into three categories.  10% are off the charts brilliant.  40% are super smart and figure out how to make it through MIT (I put myself in this category).  50% are very smart / super smart and are miserable every day they are there until they graduate.  MIT – more than any other school I’ve been exposed to – in a constant assault on one’s self esteem.

    • My visceral reaction to that link was "hand over my mouth, OMFG" when I got to the bottom. Then you realize that it really doesn't apply to Objectivism.

  • I love Mike Wallace smoking in the middle of the interview! Love it!
    Thanks for the pointer to the interviews.

  • Chris Dorr

    Yes I read Rand in college and realized then that she just provides intellectual cover for people who are very small minded, self involved and apologists for a crude form of free market capitalism that even smart capitalists don't really believe. I suggest that those who really think she says something really profound start reading the Pre-Socratics, move to Plato and work their way through the prominent thinkers of Western Philosophy, on both the Continental and Analytic side and you will see that she is a midget among giants. My guess is that most people who love Rand have not taken the time to tackle real philosophy. It is hard, but worth the effort.

    • Anna

      I studied and majored in Philosophy at an Ivy League university (Columbia), both bachelor's and master's, and recently, beginning in my mid thirties, re read the Pre Socratics, Catholic Scholasticism and German Idealism out of sheer intellectual interest…I find Rand a giant among giants (and pygmies masquerading as giants)…She could easily have taken on Descartes, Kant, Hegal and Nietzsche; John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged could trounce the Bertrand Russels, Sartres and Keyneses of this world. Rand is completely misunderstood by her "critics" and even her fans understand her–it often strikes me–only very superficially. That she wrote her philosophy in the form of a novel simply speaks to her artistic talent—the books are beautifully written (and I discovered her at 30, not "14"). I say all this without being an Objectivist, just a great fan. Cheers to you.

  • I guess that would put you in the “hate it” category!  I agree with Wittgenstein when he said “philosophy is dead.”  I also never noticed Plato saying anything about capitalism, in fact didn’t Plato advocate rulers (philosopher kings)?  But then again, I wasn’t a philosophy major – I was busy starting companies when I was in college.

  • First off, I really liked your Mother's paintings. She has real talent. Secondly, you say you are not an objectivist. What are your political leanings? I have been following you for quite some time and really can't pin you down as a Liberal, Conservative or Libertarian. Is that sort of the idea?
    I do like the fact the anytime you post something about Rand it really produces some great responses. Best of luck to you this decade my friend.

  • Thanks for the kind note on my mom’s are.  I’ll make sure she sees it!

    Re: my political leanings – I don’t fit in a box.  There many things about each perspective that I like and don’t like.  As a result, I generally think of myself as a composite that is unique.  I guess that means I’m a BradFeldian.

  • I can’t even imagine the debacle it would be – logical and rational thinking (whether you agree with it or not) intersected with Hannity?  Eek.

  • Bill Moore

    This is very interesting in that I've read about her and her ideas for some time, but never seen a live interview. Thanks for the links.

    One word pretty much sums i up: Sociopath.

    Classic. Everything about her. Sentence structure, eye movement and, of course, the ideas themselves.

  • Some of my best friends are sociopaths!

  • MichaelM

    The magnetic draw on honest minds of Rand's interviews is, like her writing, that she communicates in chaffless ideas. When assessing the degree that a commenter is knowledgeable on the subject of Objectivism one can immediately make hefty deductions off the top for the mention of how many words there are in Atlas Shrugged and/or how she could have made her point in a speeches or a book half the size. Little do they know what they are overlooking.

    The largest message she left us is that to understand our history and plot our future, it is only the naked content of ideas that ultimately matter, because it is only with ideas that man can control the actions that otherwise would be driven by irrational whims and fears. It is also the ubiquitous evasion of them that is a large part of the cause for our present culture's downfall.

    In the mountain of text that blogs amass every day, ideas are the scarcest commodity. Evasions prevail, disguised by the social conventions and inhibitions in which everyday communications are imprisoned. Two immediate examples in this thread have caught my eye:

    Brad, you are hiding your ideas behind the generic caveat "I don't consider myself an Objectivist," and when pressed by dalferes, you stuck to the use of labels. You are, of course, under no obligation to anyone to reveal the nature of your own ideas. It is your blog and you may choose to be just a master of ceremonies if you want. That notwithstanding, my disappointment is that the value any other human being could possibly derive from the mere knowledge that you are this label but not that label is microscopic, if any. It does not rise above the level of knowing what you ate for breakfast. [I will of course forgive you when I penetrate your archives and find the mind of Brad Feld fully exposed and inviting vigorous debate.]

    At the same time, Chris Dorr and Bill Moore, you are hiding behind a different but equally common evasion — unsubstantiated characterization. In your "criticisms" of Rand, not one single idea of hers was even referenced, let alone shown to be deficient. To what human being could the fact that you hold those characterizations to be valid be of value? What could anyone possibly do with them?

    Two things exacerbate this habit:

    1. The generations that you and I constitute were raised in cultures dominated by subjectivism. "That's just your opinion" counts as a reply, meaning "nothing is really true" or "my truth is good for me and yours is good for you". It is compounded by the command to "judge not lest ye be judged." Ideas became impolite. To that, Rand said "judge, and prepare to be judged." I say in addition, "facts cannot be insults — indignation is no rebuttal."

    2. The miniscule cost of the venue and the smallness of the units in which we converse lures us from our ability to grasp the larger cost of the value gained for our time invested. Thus we squander.

    I have debated the content of these tapes for 43 years and learned way back when the hard way: life is too short to waste the time it takes to exchange mere opinions. And, the greatest benefit of relentlessly compacting ever more reason into increasingly efficient packages does not lie in the persuasion of incorrigible minds. It is rather the added understanding required to repeatedly raise the efficacy of one's argument.

    I think it was in one of those Ford Hall lectures Harry mentioned that Rand bragged she could identify the essential message she intended to convey for every last phrase in Atlas Shrugged, and invited random selections from the audience with which then she proved the point in spades. What blogging critic of hers can do that?

    • Anna

      Excellent post. True–so annoyingly, wearyingly true, your point 1—-Anna

  • Re:” when pressed by dalferes, you stuck to the use of labels.”  Two things: 1: Really – I thought I said “I don’t fit in a box … I guess that means I’m a BradFeldian.”  If I was being more precise, I would have said “I reject the labels – I incorporate different pieces of different things in my personal philosophy”.  2: A lot of my own thinking is throughout my blog and I believe I live my personal philosophy.

  • Fascinating interview. I enjoyed Rand's 2 major novels, even if I don't agree with some of her philosophy. Wallace sounds like he's out of his league.

  • Yup – it definitely felt like Wallace was out of his league.  It was kind of fun to watch him struggle.

  • Yup – it definitely felt like Wallace was out of his league.  It was kind of fun to watch him struggle.

  • Yup – it definitely felt like Wallace was out of his league.  It was kind of fun to watch him struggle.

  • Yup – it definitely felt like Wallace was out of his league.  It was kind of fun to watch him struggle.

  • Hi Michael – I'm impressed by your writing and hope it will inspire my own. Do you have a blog that I could follow?

    @Brad – thanks for the post. Incredibly thought provoking.

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  • DaveJ

    Brad, you might not be surprised to know that I have the interview on videotape and I decided to watch it again this morning during my workout. I found it particularly amusing that Wallace uses exactly the terminology Rand decries in Atlas Shrugged.

    Another thing I noticed is that her defense regarding the business cycle was exclusively that if one studies economic history, all monopolies and recessions are caused by government interference. In other words, she seems to grant that they are bad, but claims that they wouldn't happen under genuine laissez-faire. I have been thinking recently about another way to approach this: what if we didn't think of these things as "societal concerns" – that (politically) we just let things play out. Maybe some things wouldn't be "optimal." Is that a justification for government interference? That things aren't optimal? (even leaving aside the key question of "optimal for whom?")

  • “optimal for whom” for whom is a key phrase.  I watched CNN for the first time in a year during my run today just to see what was on.  It was ridiculous – 80% was about government (state / federal / international), 10% was about weather, and 10% was about other stuff.  I ran for an hour – probably got 45% of the “first run of the day news.”  I kept thinking “this is not relevant to my view of / interest in” the universe.

  • Pablo

    "I agree with the facts but not with the estimate[…]" Wonderful answer!

    Thanks for posting this Brad, when you did I was actually reading Atlas Shrugged and I bookmarked to watch it when I finished. That is now 🙂

  • I very much enjoyed all the three videos and they were really amazing.

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