Greed, Smarts, and Ayn Rand

People on the front lines of the technology business are fond of praising one another’s intelligence. They are forever saying that so and so is the smartest guy they’ve ever met/worked with/brought in on a deal. This New Economy of ours is being built by people who are superintelligent, brilliant, big-brained geniuses. And just about the time you might be prepared to believe this, along comes word of a vogue for Ayn Rand.

Since I recently picked on New Economy magazines, I’ll give full credit here to the Industry Standard for introducing me to the recent spike in Rand-iana. In the piece, various tech-world heavy hitters pledge allegiance to Rand, including DoubleClick CEO Kevin O’Conner, WebTV founder Steve Perlman, Cypress Semiconductor CEO T.J. Rodgers, and E.piphany co-founder John McCaskey. (Rand fan Alan Greenspan is, of course, mentioned in passing, as well.) McCasky explains that the Net-business crowd loves Rand because: “Our society says that personal ambition is bad.”

Meanwhile, back over here on planet Earth, now actually seems like a pretty good time to be ambitious. I certainly think it’s safe to say that there’s a lot more cultural enthusiasm about entrepreneurs than there is about philanthropists or union leaders. There’s nothing wrong with being an ambitious entrepreneur, of course. And this being America, ambitious entrepreneurs are pretty much free to be as greedy and selfish as they want to be without fear of reprisal or public ridicule–particularly if they run public companies whose share price has risen faster than the S&P 500 average.

What does deserve ridicule is the notion that on top of everything else, some of these entrepreneurs apparently want intellectual validation. This is why it’s useful for them to embrace Rand’s “objectivism,” a worldview that argues for selfishness and the triumph of ego, and rejects not only any form of government regulation of the economy, but altruism itself. A little more of McCaskey’s commentary in the Standard: “Rand gives you a confidence in the morality of your ambitions. She says it’s not only OK but actually good to build wealth.” (You’ll find a quick primer on objectivism from this official Rand site; see for more on Rand.)

This is a laughably easy “moral” position for tech entrepreneurs to adopt, and shows a level of philosophical sophistication roughly equivalent to that of a college freshman–and thus undercuts the whole big-brain, superintelligent thing. It’s one thing to expect the rest of the world to see you as smart, or to tolerate your rampant greed, but to expect the world to see you as smart because of your rampant greed is a bit much. If the Roarks and Galts and Dagneys of the Internet era want to be selfish, go ahead and be selfish; don’t hide behind the intellectual window-dressing of Ayn Rand, pretending to have worked through the issues from all angles. Besides, my guess is that most shareholders aren’t all that concerned with the “morality of your ambitions” in the first place.