Ayn Rand, the Russian-born writer and self-styled philosopher who died three decades ago, is back in the news as a favorite author of Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. In recent years, the passionately individualist, pro-capitalist Rand has been embraced as a champion of freedom by many conservatives and libertarians, and denounced as a prophet of greed and narcissism by many liberals. Yet, if Rand admirers tend to ignore the flaws of her vision, her detractors reduce her to grotesque caricature — and invoke her popularity as proof of right-wing nuttiness.
One major misconception is that Rand worshipped the rich and saw moneymaking as life’s highest goal. In fact, most wealthy characters in her novels are pathetic, repulsive, or both: businessmen fattened on shady deals or government perks, society people who fill their empty lives with luxury. (There are also sympathetic poor and working-class characters.)
In “The Fountainhead,” Rand’s first bestseller (and best novel), the hero, architect Howard Roark, describes “the man whose sole aim is to make money” as a variety of “the second-hander” who lives through others, seeking only to impress with his wealth. Roark himself turns down lucrative jobs rather than sacrifice his artistic integrity, at one point finding himself penniless.
Rand extolled “selfishness,” but not quite in its common meaning. (To some extent, she was using the now-familiar confrontational tactic of turning a slur against a stigmatized group — in this case, true individualists — into a badge of pride.) Roark’s foil, the social-climbing opportunist Peter Keating, gives up both the work and the woman he truly loves for career advancement. Most people, Rand says, would condemn Keating as “selfish”; yet his real problem is lack of self.
To Rand, being “selfish” meant being true to oneself, neither sacrificing one’s own desires nor trampling on others. Likewise, Rand’s stance against altruism was not an assault on compassion so much as a critique of doctrines that subordinate the individual to a collective — state, church, community, or family.
Was Rand’s individualism too radical? Yes. Her hostility to the idea of any moral obligation to others led her to argue that, while helping a friend in need is fine, doing so at the expense of something it hurts you to give up is “immoral.” In her fiction, even private charity as a vocation is despised; so, mostly, is family. Rand made little allowance for the fact that some people cannot help themselves through no fault of theirs, or that much individual achievement is enabled by support networks.
Yet great insights can come from flawed thinkers. Rand’s anti-altruism tirades often turn their target into a straw man, but she is right that the knee-jerk habit of treating altruistic goals as noble has aided evil — for instance, blinding well-meaning Westerners to communism’s monstrosity. When pundits alarmed by Rand-style individualism scoff at the “myth” of individual autonomy, we should remember that this “myth” gave us freedom and human rights, and unleashed creative energies that raised humanity’s welfare to once-unthinkable levels. Rand’s work offers a powerful defense of freedom’s moral foundation — and a perceptive analysis of the kinship between “progressive” and “traditionalist” anti-freedom ideologies.
Rand’s ideas apply to the personal as well as the political. One needn’t go to Randian extremes to agree that the valorization of “sacrifice” and the accusation of “selfishness” can be potent weapons for users, manipulators, and family despots — or that dependency is not the path to healthy relationships. (In Rand’s words, “To say ‘I love you,’ one must first know how to say the ‘I.’ ”) A common critique is that Rand appeals to adolescents who think they’re self-sufficient, special, and destined for great achievement. Yet surely the world would be poorer — materially and spiritually — without people who carry some of that “spirit of youth,” as Rand called it, into adulthood.
Attacks on Rand have also focused on her person, from her disastrous extramarital affair with a much younger protégé to her brief infatuation, at 23, with a notorious killer she described as an “exceptional boy” warped by conformist society. Ugly stuff, to be sure; but plenty of other intellectuals had a sordid personal lives and romanticized murderers as rebels.
Rand is best viewed as a brilliant maverick. But there are reasons this woman attracted hordes of followers, influenced many others, and impressed smart people from journalist Mike Wallace to philosopher John Hospers. Those who treat Rand as a liberal bogeyman will forever be blindsided by her appeal.
Cathy Young is a columnist at Newsday and RealClearPolitics.com.