The ambivalent legacy of Ayn Rand

By Leonard Hitchcock

Hovering over the insecure alliance of factions on the far right of the political spectrum is the uneasy, and probably angry, spirit of Alisa Rosenbaum, better known by the name she invented for herself when she immigrated to the United States in 1926: Ayn Rand.  She has been dead for 28 years, but her name still pops up in political discussions, her two weighty novels, “The Fountainhead” (1943) and “Atlas Shrugged” (1957), are still read, and the philosophical movement that she founded, Objectivism, still exists.

It was in her novels that Rand first expressed her political and economic convictions.  Those works were, in fact, heavily ideological, with characters who were little more than conceptual types.  The Fountainhead’s hero, an architect, exemplifies the virtue of individualism.  He is someone who formulates his own goals and is true to himself, no matter what the consequences.  He will not compromise his ideals or his vision, and his intolerance of tradition and mediocrity impedes his ability to acquire design projects, but, in the end, he is vindicated and gets the girl.

“Atlas Shrugged” is set in a semi-fictional United States where big government has stifled laissez-faire capitalism and politicians and special interests have corrupted the political process.  It celebrates those “creative producers” in society who, in response to being frustrated and demeaned by the degenerate establishment, go on strike, refuse to participate in the economic activity of the nation, and eventually bring the country to its senses by making it realize the error of its ways.

There was a lot for conservatives to like in these didactic novels.  They applauded Rand’s staunch defense of laissez-faire capitalism.  They admired the emphasis upon the virtues of individualism, the ringing endorsement of the natural rights of the individual as set forth in the Declaration of Independence, and the critique of the destructive “collectivist” mentality.  And they were highly enthusiastic about Rand’s claim that government had become bloated and intrusive and a barrier to progress.

But there were features of Rand’s thought that, for one or another variety of conservative, were unsettling.  Not only did she celebrate individualism, she extolled the virtue of egotism and was contemptuous of altruism.  Altruism, in Rand’s view, was, and always had been, the bane of free societies.  It was in the name of altruism, she argued, that governments redistributed wealth and taxed the rich to help the poor. And she criticized Christianity, as had Nietzsche, precisely because its morality demanded that people feel an obligation to help others.

In addition, Rand was an avowed atheist, a staunch supporter of abortion rights, and decidedly permissive in matters of sexual conduct.  As a result, conservatives with a religious background — who had began, during the 1950s, to constitute a significant political force — found themselves quite unable to be her whole-hearted followers.

William F. Buckley’s National Review, for example, published a vitriolic review of “Atlas Shrugged” that insisted that only capitalism tempered by Christianity could serve mankind properly and that Rand was advocating a kind of fascism that would produce rule by a technocratic elite.  Rand’s elitism was, indeed, all too apparent.  In “Atlas Shrugged” she revealed a contempt for the “masses” and an extravagant admiration for the “captains of industry” whom she regarded as the only genuinely creative and independent members of society.  Traditional conservatives found this offensive.

Her love of capitalism certainly appealed to conservatives, at least prima facie, but many were put off by her insistence that capitalism was preferable to other economic models not primarily because it was the most efficient way to generate wealth, but because (and solely because) it was the only model that was consistent with morality.

The conservatives most strongly influenced by Rand were the libertarians.  When she formulated her all-encompassing philosophical system in the 1960s — objectivism — many libertarian groups claimed to adopt it wholeheartedly.  But, at least in Rand’s view, they focused exclusively on her condemnation of government and her passion for individual rights and carried those principles to extremes.  They sought to reduce government far beyond the minimal size that she felt was appropriate.  They adopted an isolationist position on the Vietnam War, even though she supported the conflict.  Perhaps most importantly, they failed, in her eyes, to give sufficient credit to her ideas.

During the 1960s Rand became the center of what could justifiably be called a cult.  She welcomed disciples, not students or mere followers.  She condemned anyone who refused to accept her system of thought in its entirety.  As time passed, fewer and fewer conservatives professed complete adherence to her position and her influence waned.  Today, even self-professed libertarians, like Ron and Rand Paul, express only a qualified approval of her views.  It would probably be accurate to say than Ayn Rand has become a legitimate patron saint of conservatism, but a somewhat embarrassing one, and her patronage is no longer publicly acknowledged without some hesitation.

Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is a professor emeritus at Idaho State University’s Eli M. Oboler Library.