News Column

The Revenge of Ayn Rand

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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."

"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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