Ayn Rand: Sociopath Who Admired a Serial Killer?

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If you've ever had the feeling that there was something fundamentally sociopathic about Ayn Rand's philosophy, you may have been on to something. Apparently one of Ayn Rand's early "heroes" was a serial killer named William Edward Hickman. When he was arrested Hickman became quite famous -- the talk of the town, so to speak, but for the entire country.

The Idolization of a Serial Killer

Rand took things a bit further than most, though, and modeled at least one of her literary characters on Hickman.

The best way to get to the bottom of Ayn Rand's beliefs is to take a look at how she developed the superhero of her novel, Atlas Shrugged, John Galt. Back in the late 1920s, as Ayn Rand was working out her philosophy, she became enthralled by a real-life American serial killer, William Edward Hickman, whose gruesome, sadistic dismemberment of 12-year-old girl named Marion Parker in 1927 shocked the nation.
Rand filled her early notebooks with worshipful praise of Hickman. According to biographer Jennifer Burns, author of Goddess of the Market, Rand was so smitten with Hickman that she modeled her first literary creation -- Danny Renahan, the protagonist of her unfinished first novel, The Little Street -- on him.
Source: AlterNet

We shouldn't assume that Ayn Rand admired everything about Hickman. After all, it's not unreasonable to find the oddly admirable quality in even the worst human being. On the other hand, those "odd admirable qualities" can be found more easily in people who are more admirable overall. The choice of William Hickman cannot be separated from the reasons for his notoriety -- and it does appear that what she admired in him was not something innocuous, such as being good to dogs, but rather precisely the qualities which made him a sociopath:

What did Rand admire so much about Hickman? His sociopathic qualities: "Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should," she wrote, gushing that Hickman had "no regard whatsoever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. He has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel 'other people.'"
This echoes almost word for word Rand's later description of her character Howard Roark, the hero of her novel The Fountainhead: "He was born without the ability to consider others." (The Fountainhead is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' favorite book -- he even requires his clerks to read it.)

It's one thing to be heedless of people who are simply negative and are trying to dissuade you from trying something new, but quite another to simply never "feel other people" and to ignore the very existence of "other people." That describes a sociopath, not an innovator. An innovator is heedless of opinions that are negative about their goals; a sociopath is simply heedless of everyone else because they lack the ability to muster any empathy for others.

The Perpetuation of Sociopathic Tendencies

What's worse is that others have come to idolize the same sociopathic tendencies precisely because Ayn Rand popularized them. Justice Clarence Thomas is just one of many...

What's really unsettling is that even former Central Bank chief Alan Greenspan, whose relationship with Rand dated back to the 1950s, did some parasite-bashing of his own. In response to a 1958 New York Times book review slamming Atlas Shrugged, Greenspan, defending his mentor, published a letter to the editor that ends: "Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should. Alan Greenspan." ..
Republican faithful like GOP Congressman Paul Ryan read Ayn Rand and declare, with pride, "Rand makes the best case for the morality of democratic capitalism."

Sociopathy is the opposite of morality, and promoting it as a core feature of democratic capitalism isn't a recommendation for either Ayn Rand or capitalism. I doubt we can expect people like Paul Ryan to comprehend the contradiction between sociopathy and morality because he isn't even able to comprehend the fact that Rand was less than a committed supporter of democracy...

Except that Rand also despised democracy, writing that, "Democracy, in short, is a form of collectivism, which denies individual rights: the majority can do whatever it wants with no restrictions. In principle, the democratic government is all-powerful. Democracy is a totalitarian manifestation; it is not a form of freedom."
"Collectivism" is another one of those Randian epithets popular among her followers. Here is another Republican member of Congress, Michelle Bachman, parroting the Ayn Rand ideological line, to explain her reasoning for wanting to kill social programs: "As much as the collectivist says to each according to his ability to each according to his need, that's not how mankind is wired. They want to make the best possible deal for themselves."

To be fair, Ayn Rand's attacks on democracy are not entirely without some foundation. It's true that a majority can run roughshod over individual rights. It's true that democratic governments can behave in a totalitarian fashion. It's true that even with a democratic system, people can lack sufficient freedom -- just take a look at America's own history of slavery and voting rights, all within democratic systems. Democracy is no guarantee of liberty or freedom for all.

At the same time, though, Rand doesn't seem to be simply pointing out democracy is less than absolutely perfect and thus needs to operate within some boundaries. She isn't arguing that there are possible negative outcomes to democratic systems, but rather that those negatives are inherent in democratic systems.

For example, she's not saying that people can be less than completely free in a democracy, she's denying that it's a "form of freedom" at all. She's not simply saying that democracy can have totalitarian tendencies, but rather that it is totalitarian. Rand's denunciation of democracy as a form of "collectivism" should tell us all we need to know about her opinion of democratic systems because "collectivism" in the Randian universe is the embodiment of everything that is base, evil, and wrong in any human society. It's like the label "satanic" in Christian systems.

Democracy is a form of collectivism -- after all, the fundamental principle of democracy is that sovereign power is vested in all the people, collectively, rather than in a monarch, a god, an aristocracy, a priesthood, or anything else. Power is held by "the people," and "the people" is a collective term -- it's all of us together, making decisions together about what needs to be done. There's no "Superman" who is permitted to make decisions for us independent of our permission. There are no elite making decisions for everyone else.

Perhaps it's time to start promoting the value of "collectivist" political systems against those who are trying to argue for sociopathic, dictatorial systems run by their Supermen.

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Cline, Austin. "Ayn Rand: Sociopath Who Admired a Serial Killer?" Learn Religions, Oct. 12, 2021, learnreligions.com/ayn-rand-sociopath-who-admired-serial-killer-3975225. Cline, Austin. (2021, October 12). Ayn Rand: Sociopath Who Admired a Serial Killer? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/ayn-rand-sociopath-who-admired-serial-killer-3975225 Cline, Austin. "Ayn Rand: Sociopath Who Admired a Serial Killer?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/ayn-rand-sociopath-who-admired-serial-killer-3975225 (accessed March 29, 2023).