There are more of them out there than you think. They hold to a philosophy of stripped down government, undiluted capitalism, and deliberate selfishness. Their guru is the 20th century novelist and essayist Ayn Rand, apostle of über individualism. Some idea of their numbers can be gleaned from a Zogby poll commissioned by the Ayn Rand Institute, now the official vehicle for the founder’s ideas. Of 2,100 adult Americans surveyed in 2010, 29 percent professed to having read Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. As a proportion of the American populace, that would be equivalent to as many as 75 million people! Even more eye-popping is the fact that among those who read the book, 49 percent stated that it changed the way they “think about political or ethical issues.” That’s a degree of influence that most writers would not dream of in their mother of all fantasies.
The Ayn Rand vogue did not emerge over night. It has been on the ascent for some sixty plus years, from the time she began producing her epic novels in the 1940’s and 50’s. Over the intervening years, her books have spurred the imaginations of legions of young individualists. What is different today is that the undertow has become a surging current. The financial crisis and the Obama presidency radically changed the political landscape, making possible a swelling outcry by self-made citizens against government intervention. The Ayn Rand philosophy found its near-perfect expression in the Tea Party movement, a rebellion that denounces any tinkering with the sacred workings of the market and gives special honor to a new kind of national hero, the job-creator.
One does not think of most Americans as natural philosophers, and certainly not systematic ones. The sudden expansion of a movement largely inspired by Ayn Rand’s uncompromising worldview thus raises tantalizing questions as to how committed her followers actually are to her core principles. Who are these people, and how do they think? To help us sort it all out, Gary Weiss, a journalist known for his investigations of the inner workings of high finance, has stepped into the breach with Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America.
It soon becomes clear to the author that Randians come in all shapes and sizes. There are the official protectors of the founder’s doctrines and reputation, the associates of the Ayn Rand Institute, nurtured by a group of prestigious donors. Less well endowed but still active are the breakaway Atlas Society and an assortment of deauthorized individuals who endorse a less straight-jacketed version of the Randian philosophy. And finally there are the troops on the ground, those whose view of Rand is unofficial and who range from devoted disciples to fellow travelers.
Although Ayn Rand’s philosophy, called Objectivism, rests on a tight set of “rationalistic” principles, most of her disciples have a way of asserting their own priorities. Weiss, who conducts his investigation largely by interview, enjoys focusing in on the gnawing inconsistencies. His probing questions invariably receive uncomfortable responses. He asks, for instance, a Randian Tea Party spokesman who wants to put a friendly face on the movement what he thinks of the virtue of selfishness; a business admirer of Rand how he reconciles himself to group decision-making (very un-Randian); a Christian devotee of Atlas Shrugged how she deals with Rand’s denial of God. One concludes from these encounters that the typical Rand devotee seizes upon certain isolated Randian themes, especially the liberty of the thinking individual, but ignores their full ramifications when applied to the real world.
A closer look at the whole Randian worldview might open some eyes. Indeed, while it may proclaim the virtues of liberty in an appealing way, it does so through unwarranted hyperbole and dramatization. It envisions enemies and evils to be confronted at every turn, and portrays the embattled individual in idealized, heroic fashion. Randian objectivists assert that they are nothing but objective, since they ostensibly refuse to let individual subjectivity determine what lies in front of them. “Existence is,” as the founder puts it, and the individual must use her powers of reason to face it clinically. But there is nothing clinical about a worldview that sees government as the epitome of evil, the market as the solution to all problems, or the virtue of helping others as a faulty ideal. These are assertions based on fervent commitments, not balanced or objective observation.
Progressives who would simply dismiss Ayn Rand or refuse to engage with her at all, however, should perhaps rethink their position. Weiss’ book, for all its vigorous skepticism, asks us to take her seriously. We must come to grips with the fact that many of our fellow Americans, imbued with individualism, find her books alluring. Understanding her views allows us to reexamine our own core values and more effectively oppose a new reactionary trend in our political culture.