Ayn Rand: Conservative America's troubling goddess
Whoever prevails in today's US election, the 2012 presidential campaign should go down as a referendum on the long conservative fascination with Ayn Rand, the controversial libertarian novelist and philosopher.
Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate and former titan of private equity, embodies Rand's belief in the moral rectitude of free-market capitalism. A secretly videotaped speech Romney gave to a private fundraising audience - in which he asserted that 47 percent of Americans were "dependent upon government" - was an excellent distillation of this worldview.
Romney's running mate, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, has built his political philosophy on Rand's work; for years, he gave copies of her novels as Christmas presents and made them required reading for his staffers. His belief that the United States is increasingly divided between "makers" and "takers" informs his policy positions on everything from Medicaid to food stamps.
Ryan's language echoes Rand's, and it's worth remembering how her work came to occupy such a vaunted position in modern Republican thought.
In her 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, Rand advanced a clear distinction between virtuous "producers" and unethical "looters" and "moochers." In Rand's view, the stability of American society was threatened by the non-productive, who used altruism to stake a claim on the wealth generated by producers. In the novel, the moochers have become so powerful that the producers are no longer willing to work on their behalf. Facing oppressive regulation and taxation, the producers go "on strike," retreating to a secret hideaway in Colorado. Without them, society begins to collapse.
As an alternative to this dark future, Rand proposed objectivism, her own philosophy of limited government, rationality and ethical selfishness. Only absolute laissez-faire capitalism, she argued, would give producers the freedom to work to their full potential. Along the way, the economy would thrive, but for Rand that wasn't the point. What mattered was that individuals could lead lives of independence and integrity, even if they contributed nothing to the common good.
Rand expected her contemporaries to greet Atlas Shrugged as a major intellectual contribution. But critics hated the novel, calling it unreadable and worse. The most vicious attack came from the conservative thinker Whittaker Chambers, writing in National Review. Chambers grasped immediately that Rand was an atheist. Indeed, Rand was profoundly irreligious, calling religion "a psychological disorder." Chambers thought her ideas were dangerous and flawed because they grew from atheistic roots. Even if her arguments about capitalism were sound, Chambers warned, Rand wasn't a real conservative and didn't truly understand freedom. The title of his review said it all: "Big Sister is Watching You."
Despite this criticism, Atlas Shrugged became a sleeper hit among generations of young conservatives and libertarians. Rand shrugged off the critics and promoted her ideas directly to the thousands of young people drawn to objectivism. In the 1960s, she was a popular speaker on college campuses and a favorite of the mass media, sitting for a famous Playboy interview and appearing three times on Johnny Carson's show. In New York, hundreds of students filled her weekly lectures on objectivism, with thousands more across the country listening to taped versions.
And Rand didn't hesitate to apply her ideas to current politics. She supported Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in his unsuccessful 1964 run for the presidency and regularly described how objectivist principles could be applied to current events in the Objectivist Newsletter.
Still, Rand remained at odds with mainstream conservatism. She denounced Ronald Reagan for mixing religion and politics and especially for his views on abortion. She criticised the Vietnam War and suggested that the government had no right to regulate drug use. Such views endeared her to young conservatives who embraced the anti-establishment mood of the day. Over time, Rand's libertarian social views came to seem less threatening and more of a sideshow to her discussion of capitalism and the morality of selfishness. Her rebellious young followers matured into today's conservative establishment, along the way giving her ideas ever greater legitimacy.
Ryan now emphasises Rand's identification of individualism versus collectivism as a defining moral issue. A refugee from Soviet Russia, Rand believed that capitalist democracy was threatened by the 20th-century rise of systems like communism and socialism. Ryan sees the same dynamic at work today, arguing that this basic distinction lies at the heart of all political problems. As a Catholic, Ryan is far from Rand on social issues. But he has been profoundly shaped by the binary picture of the world she first created in Atlas Shrugged.
Among the many ironies of Ryan's attraction to Rand is that Atlas Shrugged depicted politicians as among the worst moochers of them all, followed closely by their business allies. Another is that religious readers were once among Rand's fiercest critics. Not only did they reject her atheism, but they were troubled by the divisive language of her work. It was one thing to celebrate the winners in capitalist society; it was another to attack the losers and blame them for all social ills. Rand claimed that selfishness was a virtue and altruism a vice.
Yet today, even politicians who claim a deep religious faith seem little troubled by these concerns. Rand's division of Americans into moochers and producers, dependents and independents, is no longer controversial - it reflects conventional wisdom in the Republican Party. This election may well determine if that philosophy can withstand the scrutiny of American voters.
* Jennifer Burns, an assistant professor of history at Stanford University, is the author of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right.
- Washington Post