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Global Affairs

Peter Thiel, Ayn Rand and the Denial of Individual Greatness

 4 min read / 

Love her or loathe her, Ayn Rand and her philosophy have undoubtedly helped to shape some of the world’s most prominent – and successful – entrepreneurs, investors and politicians. Her best-selling novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged continue to sell in droves, many decades after they were first released in 1943 and 1957, respectively. In fact, in 2002, a poll found that Atlas Shrugged is the most influential book in the US, second only to the Bible.

Prime Movers”

The ideals that Rand espoused – capitalism, virtuous self-interest, the sovereignty of man’s mind, perhaps even her odd defence of chauvinism – have clearly shaped many of the world’s leading technology companies, their cultures and the individuals that built them. In a sense, this is not surprising; at its most extreme, entrepreneurialism is a battle waged by the lone individual against market incumbents, the status quo, and even governments.

Venture capitalist Peter Thiel is, for one, a prominent Rand fan, though like fellow investor Mark Cuban, he tempers his comments regarding the controversial author-philosopher, presumably to suit today’s political climate. In his book Zero to One, Thiel writes that there is no such thing as Rand’s “prime mover” – the archetypal industrialist upon whose shoulders all human progress rests – but that the “villains” of her novels do indeed exist.

It is difficult to take this statement seriously. Of course, there can be no doubt that Rand’s caricatural incompetent bureaucrats and untrustworthy, self-serving officials do exist. This sentiment, in reality, transcends the business world and is also manifest in the frustration felt by populations of wealthy nations towards their leaders.

However, his profession that individuals of exceptional ability do not exist appears more than a little contrived – after all, Thiel has built a fortune by investing in them. To deny that individuals such as Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Vitalik Buterin – perhaps even Thiel himself – are “prime movers” as defined by Rand fundamentally denies the hierarchy of ability – and, to be cynical, privilege – that evidently exists.

After all, Rand’s own fictional “prime movers” were based on real people: Hank Rearden is essentially a fictionalised Henry Ford, while Howard Roark is based on the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. If Rand was writing today, she would certainly find inspiration in both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

Zealous Cynicism

Thiel readily admits that he is a contrarian. His hedge fund, Clarium Capital, made enormous returns pre-2008 based on unconventional macro bets. Thiel is also both openly gay and, as of 2016, a Republican; he was perhaps the only prominent tech leader to publicly support the election of Donald Trump.

However, there is a logic that runs through Thiel’s seemingly irreconcilable stances: the sovereignty of the individual. Thiel – like Rand herself and many of his fellow tech entrepreneurs – is a libertarian who believes in small government, individual liberties and the human spirit. After all, only an unshakeable belief in one’s right to privacy could motivate Thiel to wage a risky, years-long war against Gawker for an ultimately harmless transgression into his personal life.

Therefore, what does it say about society that someone such as Thiel – the libertarian – is unwilling to openly acknowledge the greatness of the individuals he invests in?

Maybe Thiel feels that society as a whole that is too cynical and too sensitive to objectively acknowledge an individual’s greatness. Author Anand Giridharadas leapt on the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal to promote his book Winners Take All, which posits that society should be wary of business leaders that seek to “change the world” and instead place their lot with public institutions. Or perhaps Thiel’s apparent denial is precisely because he knows that the Randian “villains” he alluded to do exist; think of how Mitt Romney famously called Tesla a “loser” during a 2012 presidential debate, despite the Model S’ spectacular reviews that year. Maybe Thiel’s denial is prompted by a fear of drawing the ire of these so-called “villains” and slowing the rate of progress.

Whatever one thinks of her more controversial viewpoints, denying that Rand’s “prime movers” exist in today’s society unjustly caps human ability. The world is currently being reshaped and reimagined by exceptional people at an unprecedented rate. Pretending that this sea change is not being effected by a core group of individuals – who, in this globalised world, are free to set up shop abroad – is a pedantic and potentially dangerous argument.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

    WP_Comment Object ( [comment_ID] => 136033 [comment_post_ID] => 153909 [comment_author] => Jim Mullen [comment_author_email] => [email protected] [comment_author_url] => http://www.musiqclub.com [comment_author_IP] => 173.245.52.107 [comment_date] => 2018-06-17 16:23:29 [comment_date_gmt] => 2018-06-17 15:23:29 [comment_content] => Denying prime movers in no way caps human ability, credit to Thiel. Half-baked ideas about how people and companies actually come to success and exposure don't help humanity. The truth about success and greatness is much less like a comic book hero with special powers than the author of this article suggests. As an entrepreneur a primary challenge is to gain exposure. Challenges abound and failure is commonplace, and the allure of working on an easier, less risky project is constant. But the value of what we created is significant, so we persist. Persistence over time moves the needle, and with the right opportunity, leads to success. Persistence in the face of adversity takes courage, which is one measure of greatness. But many who succeed in obtaining great exposure don't experience much adversity, and many with great courage don't succeed and never get exposed. Thiel is correct not to attribute a high level of financial success to God like intelligence or other imagined capabilities. Growth and disruption almost always requires drive, but the turning point into growth often relies on 'breaks'. The dangerous idea is not Thiel's, but the premise the author borrows from Rand. that great change comes from a -handful- of great individuals. Rands premise implies those without exposure have little chance of making a difference and all would work so much better if we would just follow the greats.. To some degree that's what many people do.. pick winners and follow, but this is just as likely to produce a lesser result for the progress of humanity.. I personally believe every brain should be used to the best of its ability, and we shouldn't let others do our thinking. A person with many great moments does not move the needle on the cosmic scale unless they inspire many others to moments of greatness. Must one conclude that Trump is great because he's bringing about great change? I'm sure he's driven and persistent and had some good breaks.. but the point is having strong convictions doesn't make us credible judges of greatness in real time. Labels of greatness are often misplaced, and not to be trusted. Good people are portrayed as bad, etc. Why concern ourselves with greatness of a few humans, when 'leaders' inevitably rely on the good work of many others in order to accumulate exposure and create their brand? Greatness in humans is determined by many factors, ability to care for others, to imagine and create, and to maintain courage and persist. My parents and friends and family and many others have 'moments' of greatness. Those who imagine and create primarily to serve themselves are not exceptional in the practical sense, even with great exposure. Great destruction is an oxymoron. Many people have numerous great moments without much exposure, many with great exposure waste life's opportunity serving themselves. The success of being at the helm of a disruptive company during it's period of fastest growth is hard to compare to greatness achieved in helping those in need.. they both live on forever in a complex never-ending chain of people's lives. Greatness in the comparative sense is impossible to quantify unless one is omniscient. [comment_karma] => 0 [comment_approved] => 1 [comment_agent] => Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0; Win64; x64) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/67.0.3396.87 Safari/537.36 [comment_type] => [comment_parent] => 0 [user_id] => 0 [children:protected] => [populated_children:protected] => [post_fields:protected] => Array ( [0] => post_author [1] => post_date [2] => post_date_gmt [3] => post_content [4] => post_title [5] => post_excerpt [6] => post_status [7] => comment_status [8] => ping_status [9] => post_name [10] => to_ping [11] => pinged [12] => post_modified [13] => post_modified_gmt [14] => post_content_filtered [15] => post_parent [16] => guid [17] => menu_order [18] => post_type [19] => post_mime_type [20] => comment_count ) )
  1. Jim Mullen

    June 17, 2018 at 4:23 PM

    Denying prime movers in no way caps human ability, credit to Thiel. Half-baked ideas about how people and companies actually come to success and exposure don’t help humanity. The truth about success and greatness is much less like a comic book hero with special powers than the author of this article suggests.

    As an entrepreneur a primary challenge is to gain exposure. Challenges abound and failure is commonplace, and the allure of working on an easier, less risky project is constant. But the value of what we created is significant, so we persist. Persistence over time moves the needle, and with the right opportunity, leads to success. Persistence in the face of adversity takes courage, which is one measure of greatness. But many who succeed in obtaining great exposure don’t experience much adversity, and many with great courage don’t succeed and never get exposed.

    Thiel is correct not to attribute a high level of financial success to God like intelligence or other imagined capabilities. Growth and disruption almost always requires drive, but the turning point into growth often relies on ‘breaks’. The dangerous idea is not Thiel’s, but the premise the author borrows from Rand. that great change comes from a -handful- of great individuals.

    Rands premise implies those without exposure have little chance of making a difference and all would work so much better if we would just follow the greats.. To some degree that’s what many people do.. pick winners and follow, but this is just as likely to produce a lesser result for the progress of humanity.. I personally believe every brain should be used to the best of its ability, and we shouldn’t let others do our thinking.

    A person with many great moments does not move the needle on the cosmic scale unless they inspire many others to moments of greatness. Must one conclude that Trump is great because he’s bringing about great change? I’m sure he’s driven and persistent and had some good breaks.. but the point is having strong convictions doesn’t make us credible judges of greatness in real time.

    Labels of greatness are often misplaced, and not to be trusted. Good people are portrayed as bad, etc. Why concern ourselves with greatness of a few humans, when ‘leaders’ inevitably rely on the good work of many others in order to accumulate exposure and create their brand?

    Greatness in humans is determined by many factors, ability to care for others, to imagine and create, and to maintain courage and persist. My parents and friends and family and many others have ‘moments’ of greatness. Those who imagine and create primarily to serve themselves are not exceptional in the practical sense, even with great exposure. Great destruction is an oxymoron.

    Many people have numerous great moments without much exposure, many with great exposure waste life’s opportunity serving themselves. The success of being at the helm of a disruptive company during it’s period of fastest growth is hard to compare to greatness achieved in helping those in need.. they both live on forever in a complex never-ending chain of people’s lives. Greatness in the comparative sense is impossible to quantify unless one is omniscient.

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