As Iceland struggles to emerge from an economic depression brought on in part by lax government regulation, Professor Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurason says Icelanders need more Ayn Rand in their lives. A well-known neoliberal who counts Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Adam Smith and David Hume amongst his intellectual influences, he is now working on The Ayn Rand Project, which aims to translate Rand’s novels into Icelandic and to organise meetings and lectures on her philosophy. As ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ the second of her novels to be translated to Icelandic, is scheduled to come out in October, Hannes explains what Icelanders can learn from Rand.
THE NEW “LEFT-WING ORTHODOXY”
Do you think that Rand has had any influence in Iceland?
Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’ was published in an Icelandic translation in 1990, and quickly sold out. In 1949, Morgunblaðið serialised her novel, ‘We The Living.’ The Icelandic Broadcasting Service has several times broadcast a play by Rand, ‘The Night of January 16th.’ I would, however, say that her influence in Iceland until now has been negligible.
Do you think Icelandic society needs more Rand influence then?
Definitely. Ayn Rand’s position is very challenging, especially to the new left-wing orthodoxy in Iceland, the political correctness, the fear of freedom and individual responsibility. Her novels are fascinating. It is not a wonder that they have sold almost 30 million copies worldwide. Rand knows how to tell a story and also how to convey a message. She makes an illuminating contrast between those who create wealth on the one hand and those who try to take it away from them on the other hand, or in other words a contrast between productive individuals and political parasites. In my appreciation of Rand’s novels, I am in good company. One of her admirers, for example, is the actress Angelina Jolie, and another well-known artist, Michael Caine, is such an admirer that he named his oldest daughter after the heroine of ‘The Fountainhead,’ Dominique.
TOO MUCH INTELLECTUAL COWARDICE
Why is the Icelandic Research Centre for Innovation and Economic Growth sponsoring the translation and publication of Ayn Rand’s novels in Icelandic?
Because Ayn Rand describes the necessity of innovation and entrepreneurship in her books. Her heroes are the innovators, those who have new ideas and create wealth, the industrial magnates for example. Those people have to have freedom to act, experiment and innovate if we are to have economic growth. They are the true benefactors of mankind, not the demagogues who want to do good with other people’s money.
Why bother translating Rand when just about everyone in Iceland speaks English? Does the Centre hope that the Icelandic youth will absorb Rand?
Tens, or even hundreds of novels are translated from other languages into Icelandic every year. There is as good a reason to translate Rand into Icelandic as those other novels, especially when you consider that she is still a best-selling author all over the world. But the wider question is of course whether we should speak Icelandic at all. My answer is that we should, and the reason is that we ARE Icelanders. We would be losing something very valuable if we lost our culture of which Icelandic is an extremely important part, if we would cut our ties to the past, and to each other. Indeed, we established the University of Iceland on June 17, 1911, our national hero’s 100th birthday. Why did we do this? Why did we just not send our people to study abroad? Because we wanted to learn and to teach Icelandic law, Icelandic history and Icelandic literature, not only Danish or English law, history and literature.
Regarding Icelandic youth, I would say that Rand has proven to be very stimulating to many young people, not least because of her radical ideas and her willingness to take the arguments to their logical conclusions and not to compromise. There is too much intellectual cowardice in Western society today, too much of a tendency to follow the flock.
Some argue that it was some version of Randism that got Iceland into trouble in the first place and that we need more government regulation and monitoring of business. So why publish Rand now when it seems like we need anything but Rand?
Got Iceland into trouble? Come on, this was an international economic recession. Initially it hit Iceland harder than other countries (partly because of the British labour government’s ruthlessness), but it did not of course originate in Iceland.
A persuasive case can be made for misguided government intervention (such as subprime lending in the US, and artificially low interest rates maintained by the Fed) as an important cause of the recession. If so, then Rand’s distrust of government intervention is indeed highly relevant. I think however that the main problem with regulation as a way of controlling the market is that we then presume that there is more knowledge available to the regulators and the controllers than to those controlled, and this is plainly false. Who should control the controllers, anyway? It may be that new financial techniques were a part of the problem, but then they should be dealt with, not outlawed.
The main concern should be that reckless people should not be able to shift the responsibility, and the cost, for their recklessness and mistakes from themselves to other people. Why should the German taxpayers, for example, pick up the bill for Greek spendthrifts and their creditors in German and other European banks? Why do those people always try to dig into our pockets? Why all those bailouts? These are Randian questions.
Mitt Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan, a known Randian, recently told the National Review, “I reject her philosophy. It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas…Don’t give me Ayn Rand.” What do you think of her opinions on religion, given all of the trouble the church has had, etc.?
I agree with Paul Ryan that Rand’s philosophy is far too one-sided. I do not share, for example, her militant atheism. Philosophically, I am more in the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment, with David Hume and Adam Smith, and I have also learned a lot from St. Thomas Aquinas, for that matter. We have further commitments than those who have been signed by contract. The party of liberty has to be a broad church rather than a narrow sect.
But Rand has an important message. This message is that we should value the contributions of those individuals who are fiercely independent in their thought and creative and innovative in economic life. I think that her books are a good medicine; they are a good corrective to the collectivist tendencies in today’s society. But even if necessary, medicine should not be mistaken for food. That is the truth in Ryan’s criticism of Rand.
THE OPPRESSIVE “TALKING CLASSES”
What can Icelanders learn from Rand and her message?
What we can learn from it is to value innovation and entrepreneurship. Right now, the working classes in Iceland are oppressed by the talking classes. Those who work and contribute to the economy are heavily taxed for the benefit of those who can just talk, and hold conferences, and beg for alms in Brussels, and rattle with their collection cans. We have to throw off the yoke of the talking classes and reward individuals for their real contribution to society, for the creation of wealth, for widening choice, for increasing opportunities. We badly need new companies, new services, new goods. Which is a better way to deal with poverty, to subsidise it or to create more opportunities for people to work themselves out of poverty?
How does the mission of the Ayn Rand Project compare to the mission of Eimreiðin?
The Eimreiðin Group, which was influential in the 1980s and 1990s under the leadership of Þorsteinn Pálsson and Davíð Oddsson, pursued a much softer line than does Ayn Rand. The Eimreiðin Group was a liberal-conservative group very much in the spirit of Hayek and Friedman, and Thatcher and Reagan. I do not think that Ayn Rand could ever win an election. She is an uncompromising writer and thinker. It is both her strength and her weakness. But she is a voice, which belongs in the conversation of mankind. It should be heard, even if not slavishly obeyed.
WHO IS HANNES HÓLMSTEINN?
Hannes Hólmsteinn, a professor of political science at the University of Iceland, is one of the most influential public intellectuals in Iceland. Depending on perspective, he has been variously credited for or accused of being the main ideologue for Iceland’s Independence Party government of 18 years, which pushed through an ambitious privatisation agenda that ultimately led to a financial crisis and near-bankruptcy of Iceland.