Ayn Rand, the novelist and philosophical thinker whose books have for decades been ignored by literature and philosophy departments, had her revenge earlier this month when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney named sometime Randian Paul Ryan as his vice presidential pick.
"The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand," the Wisconsin congressman told the Randian Atlas Society in 2005.
The attention has generated a swell of posthumous popularity for Rand that has boosted sales of her books "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead," which jumped 20 percent on Amazon.com in one day last week, according to Bloomberg News Service. "Atlas Shrugged" ranked 132d among all books Monday on Amazon.
Ryan is the latest in a string of (usually conservative) politicians, pundits, and entrepreneurs who have acknowledged a debt to Rand, including economist and former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, Texas congressman and one-time White House hopeful Ron Paul, Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and Craigslist mastermind Craig Newman.
What's more, two of Rand's central tenets put her at center stage in the presidential election: She defended a form of individualism so radical that it's rarely seen in mainstream politics, and she believed America could thrive only with an unregulated free-market economy.
As Ryan put it in his 2005 speech: "The fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism vs. collectivism." (Ryan, a Roman Catholic, has since distanced himself from Rand, a radical atheist.)
What makes Rand so attractive to the right?
"She's for free markets and for free minds," said William Thomas, programs director at the Atlas Society. "She's for freedom of speech ... and she is for economic freedom: deregulation, no taxes, and a free market."
Rand biographer Anne C. Heller said the Russian-born Rand, who fled the Soviet Union in 1925, had a lifelong aversion to collectivism and extolled the idea of the self-made individual.
"Her idea of individuals is a beautiful idea. It's the best of Ayn Rand. It's about individual rights," said Heller, author of "Ayn Rand and the World She Made." "The heroes in her novels, as well as her own persona, was that of the rebellious outsider, and Americans love that. We've always loved Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield."
What makes Rand's heroes unique -- Howard Roark in "The Fountainhead" and John Galt in Rand's magnum opus, "Atlas Shrugged" -- is that unlike Mark Twain's or J.D. Salinger's characters, they spend very little time worrying about the common good.
"Rand describes another kind of American myth: the self-made person who owed nothing to anyone," said Heller, a New York-based magazine writer and editor. "You know, it's the frontier myth, of the men and women who make their own way and didn't have to answer to others."
Heller said it was a potent myth, but not perhaps very realistic.
"I think Ayn Rand was writing about an America that already had died when she was writing."
Rand took this idea to its logical extreme, said Stanford University historian Jennifer Burns. For Rand, to be an individual entails being responsible for every aspect of one's life.
"She came from a Jewish family, but she was an atheist who said her Jewish heritage wasn't important to her because she didn't choose it," said Burns, author of the 2009 biography "Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right."
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