Max Fisher at The Atlantic has most of this round-up, but oh well…
Jonathan Chait in TNR:
There is another way to describe this conservative idea. It is the ideology of Ayn Rand. Some, though not all, of the conservatives protesting against redistribution and conferring the highest moral prestige upon material success explicitly identify themselves as acolytes of Rand. (As Santelli later explained, “I know this may not sound very humanitarian, but at the end of the day I’m an Ayn Rand-er.”) Rand is everywhere in this right-wing mood. Her novels are enjoying a huge boost in sales. Popular conservative talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have touted her vision as a prophetic analysis of the present crisis. “Many of us who know Rand’s work,” wrote Stephen Moore in the Wall Street Journal last January, “have noticed that with each passing week, and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that Atlas Shrugged parodied in 1957.”
Christopher Hayes of The Nation recently recalled one of his first days in high school, when he met a tall, geeky kid named Phil Kerpen, who asked him, “Have you ever read Ayn Rand?” Kerpen is now the director of policy for the conservative lobby Americans for Prosperity and an occasional right-wing talking head on cable television. He represents a now-familiar type. The young, especially young men, thrill to Rand’s black-and-white ethics and her veneration of the alienated outsider, shunned by a world that does not understand his gifts. (It is one of the ironies, and the attractions, of Rand’s capitalists that they are depicted as heroes of alienation.) Her novels tend to strike their readers with the power of revelation, and they are read less like fiction and more like self-help literature, like spiritual guidance. Again and again, readers would write Rand to tell her that their encounter with her work felt like having their eyes open for the first time in their lives. “For over half a century,” writes Jennifer Burns in her new biography of this strange and rather sinister figure, “Rand has been the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right.”
The likes of Gale Norton, George Gilder, Charles Murray, and many others have cited Rand as an influence. Rand acolytes such as Alan Greenspan and Martin Anderson have held important positions in Republican politics. “What she did–through long discussions and lots of arguments into the night–was to make me think why capitalism is not only efficient and practical, but also moral,” attested Greenspan. In 1987, The New York Times called Rand the “novelist laureate” of the Reagan administration. Reagan’s nominee for commerce secretary, C. William Verity Jr., kept a passage from Atlas Shrugged on his desk, including the line “How well you do your work . . . [is] the only measure of human value.”
In essence, Rand advocated an inverted Marxism. In the Marxist analysis, workers produce all value, and capitalists merely leech off their labor. Rand posited the opposite. In Atlas Shrugged, her hero, John Galt, leads a capitalist strike, in which the brilliant business leaders who drive all progress decide that they will no longer tolerate the parasitic workers exploiting their talent, and so they withdraw from society to create their own capitalistic paradise free of the ungrateful, incompetent masses. Galt articulates Rand’s philosophy:
The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains. Such is the nature of the “competition” between the strong and the weak of the intellect. Such is the pattern of “exploitation” for which you have damned the strong.
Ultimately the Objectivist movement failed for the same reason that communism failed: it tried to make its people live by the dictates of a totalizing ideology that failed to honor the realities of human existence. Rand’s movement devolved into a corrupt and cruel parody of itself. She herself never won sustained personal influence within mainstream conservatism or the Republican Party. Her ideological purity and her unstable personality prevented her from forming lasting coalitions with anybody who disagreed with any element of her catechism.
Moreover, her fierce attacks on religion–she derided Christianity, again in a Nietzschean manner, as a religion celebrating victimhood–made her politically radioactive on the right. The Goldwater campaign in 1964 echoed distinctly Randian themes–“profits,” the candidate proclaimed, “are the surest sign of responsible behavior”–but he ignored Rand’s overtures to serve as his intellectual guru. He was troubled by her atheism. In an essay in National Review ten years after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, M. Stanton Evans summarized the conservative view on Rand. She “has an excellent grasp of the way capitalism is supposed to work, the efficiencies of free enterprise, the central role of private property and the profit motive, the social and political costs of welfare schemes which seek to compel a false benevolence,” he wrote, but unfortunately she rejects “the Christian culture which has given birth to all our freedoms.“
One thing that does always strike me about Rand, however, is that there strikes me as something particularly odd about the Randian tendency to assume that the business executive class generally constitutes the most intelligent segment of society. As if an Albert Einstein is just a kind of middleweight hack but the VP for Marketing at Federal Express is one of ubermenschen.
As Chait points out, Rand plumped for Wilkie in 1940, but she was no Republican. More to the point, Rand did not think income and wealth represents a sign of virtue — of hard work, productivity, or anything else. Being an intelligent person, she thought that who got how much of what depended on the complex interplay of culture and the structure of the political economy. She did think that those who through effort or industry improve others’ lives ought to see the value of their work acknowledged and rewarded in some form or other. But no one would infer from Rand’s novels and nonfiction that the United States looks, or in her day looked, anything like her ideal.
Rand does not valorize the wealthy. She valorizes the uncompromising integrity of creative visionaries and the productivity of inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs. But there is little to assure the reader that the virtues she extols really pay. Rand’s view of the world was actually pretty bleak, pretty Russian. Her best novel, We the Living, is best precisely because she had yet to philosophically suppress her tragic instincts. One of the least plausible and certainly the saddest aspects of Rand’s thought is what she called the “benevolent universe premise” — a kind of as-if attitudinal stance of positivity meant to ensure “the inability to believe in the power or the triumph of evil.” She goes on:
“No matter what corruption one observes in one’s immediate background, one is unable to accept it as normal, permanent or metaphysically right. One feels: “This injustice (or terror or falsehood or frustration or pain or agony) is the exception in life, not the rule.” One feels certain that somewhere on earth—even if not anywhere in one’s surroundings or within one’s reach—a proper, human way of life is possible to human beings, and justice matters.”
“One feels…” This is Rand’s leap of faith, her animal spirit, her will to believe. She needed her silly, contrived happy endings — and she thought we needed them — to maintain the will to do the right thing, to fight for justice, despite every indication that it’s a bad bet. Rand thought we need to feel that effort and virtue will be rewarded, or else we will, rationally enough, stop supplying effort and virtue. And then we’ll all be good and truly screwed. Make of this what you will, but it is very far from the vulgar Calvinism that sees a person’s level of success as an indicator of their merit.
Now, I’m more than willing to snicker right along with Chait at ridiculously puffed-up computer engineers who threaten to “Go Galt” at the first hint of an impending tax hike while blithely enjoying the wage subsidy of the United State’s super-stingy H1-B visa cap. But he’s really just careless in conflating the views of Ayn Rand’s confused fans with Ayn Rand’s own. I’m delighted there are two important new books that take Rand seriously as a woman, writer, and thinker. It’s too bad that Chait uses their publication as an occasion to once again take a brave stand for the redistributive state.
Jonathan Chait reviews two (!) biographies of Ayn Rand, an astoundingly muddled thinker who was, apparently, also an astoundingly unpleasant human being. She’s worth studying, as any pathological phenomenon is worth studying, and her thinking (if it can be called that) still has influence over part of the Right; her very shallowness has a deep appeal for adolescent males of all ages and both sexes.
What’s most astounding is how completely unoriginal it is. A college friend showed me some Randite document just after I’d finished reading Also Sprach Zarathustra for a course.
At once I saw the relationship:
Rand is Nietzsche for stupid people.
Brian Doherty at Reason:
Chait might be aware that he isn’t really jousting with Rand per se with all this material–he’s explicitly arguing with the likes of Stuart Varney, Greg Mankiw, unnamed stereotypical arrogant “rich people,” and Irving Kristol. But by spending so much of an essay ostensibly about Rand on these points, he’s misleading his readers about what Rand thought and why.
In addition, Chait’s anecdotal points in his review’s lead showing certain GOP-leaning public figures are seeming to rely on quasi-Randian rhetoric don’t support the belief that the American right is going through a significant Randian moment. Rand is far, far too radical a small-government libertarian for most of them to tolerate, much less emulate.
I’ll close with this Chait quote, from after he notes that both Ayn Rand and Grover Norquist have childhood memories of their parents taking from them things they thought of as theirs: “The psychological link between a certain form of childhood deprivation and extreme libertarianism awaits serious study.” It certainly does, and will probably continue to await it for a very long time: because it’s utterly irrelevant on any conceivable level when it comes to understanding or judging libertarian thought.
Freddie at The League:
The essential takeaway, besides a thoroughly fair but damning discussion of Rand’s life and legacy, is to point out (as we must keep repeating) that the rich pay remarkably less in taxes that the did just decades ago, and that they are vastly more wealthy than they were then, and yet still we hear complaints of tax tyranny and the oppression of the rich. And, as Chait says, because the reduction in taxes over the last decades and the almost unbelievable wealth creation for the economic elite is so inarguable– so Objectively true, if you will– they argument is framed in the language of tyranny, theft, and moral degradation.
Will at The League:
Given the rise of the tea party movement, his basic point – that Rand’s influence has led to an over-emphasis on a morally absolutist view of redistribution – is pretty relevant. My own view is that Rand is best understood as a product of a very specific political and cultural context; if her philosophy and subsequent influence overstates the role of individual merit in determining success, it’s probably because the mid-century consensus was weighted too far in the other direction. In other words, I think we can appreciate Rand as a necessary corrective to an overly-deterministic view of individual achievement without subscribing to her crazy philosophy. Incidentally, Brian Doherty’s excellent history of the libertarian movement has a good survey of Rand’s peculiar cultural influence.
UPDATE: Freddie at The League on Wilkinson
UPDATE #2: Chait responds to Wilkinson