"It was the same thing with her family: She left them because they weren't people she chose."
Added Burns, "The idea that we owe anything to society was anathema to her. ... Most people would not feel that way. It's certainly a unique take on humans."
Thomas said Rand's celebration of selfishness and individualism is often misunderstood as hedonism.
"Her idea is a highly virtue-oriented view. It's not do your own thing and screw everybody else," he said. "She was talking about a rational self-interest where you behave in the right way to sustain a happy life ... in the long term."
Thomas said Rand was a deeply ethical thinker in the tradition of Immanuel Kant, who outlined seven major virtues, including integrity, honesty, and justice.
Rand said "treat others as they deserve," Thomas said.
Conservatives seem drawn to Rand, Heller said, because she developed a moral defense of laissez-faire capitalism.
"Before Rand, the defense of capitalism . . . was always practical," said Heller. Rand, she said, believed that the greater good could be served only if we allow people with vision and talent to achieve their goals. That we should divert funds not to the poor, but to help foster that talent.
"She believed that the rich became rich because they were the productive ones, those who built big enterprises or came up with great ideas," said Heller. "They were the ones who were pushing civilization forward."
Heller said Rand opposed any form of regulation that might slow down progress, or any form of incentives or tax breaks that might allow one company to succeed over another.
What about the rest of us -- the non-gifted, the people who didn't become captains of industry?
"Those of us who are virtuous are doing our best to contribute our part and take what we earn and no more," said Heller. "The marketplace and not government was the best arbiter of values."
Burns said Rand believed liberals exaggerated the economic oppression wrought by the pre-New Deal robber barons. The novelist held that economic exploitation would be corrected in a truly free marketplace where workers, no less than consumers, would have the choice of voting against a company by leaving.
What if they had to work for oppressive employees -- or starve?
"We always have a choice, Rand said. Individuals always have power over their lives," Burns explained.
Temple University political scientist Joseph Schwartz, a decided anti-Randian, is dubious.
"Sure, some people can pull themselves by their bootstraps, but many people don't even have bootstraps," said Schwartz, whose books include "The Future of Democratic Equality: Reconstructing Social Solidarity in a Fragmented United States."
"What is attractive to conservative elites about Rand is that she gives them permission to gut social welfare, including popular programs like Medicare and Social Security."
Schwartz said that the 18th-century philosopher Adam Smith, who is cited as a hero by most free-market advocates, worried that without limitations, the market would become inhumane and that the market could not be allowed to define all human values. "Adam Smith said that even a competitive capitalist economy must be based on nonmarket values of empathy, caring, and selflessness. How else are we to raise our children?
"Even rugged individuals would not prosper if they don't have a decent legal system and public school system," he said.
Ironically, Rand would deplore many conservatives today because they support corporate tax breaks and offer tax incentives to attract new businesses. She'd see it as a form of socialism, said Schwartz.
Rand would fault Ryan for his religious beliefs and antiabortion stance, Burns said.
"'This is a dangerous person,' she'd say, because he is mixing religion and politics."
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