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Ayn Rand: The Siren of U.S. Conservatism

If Reagan is the father of modern U.S. conservatism, Ayn Rand is certainly its mother.

November 2, 2012

Credit: Scott Beale

Novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand has been dead for 30 years, but her ideas live on. By some counts, Rand’s novels are among the most popular and influential of all 20th-century literature.

Rand’s philosophy, and bastardizations of it, have quietly but profoundly shaped the landscape of U.S. conservativism. Mitt Romney’s running mate in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, Paul Ryan, is on record as admiring Rand’s thought.

Thus, this is a very fitting time to examine what Rand actually taught, what the merits and flaws are in Rand’s views, and what effect those teachings have had — and continue to have — on culture, politics, and policy in the United States.

Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum in czarist Russia to a relatively well-off Jewish family that endured deprivations and hardships during World War I and the communist power grab.

Fulfilling her dream

An unusually intelligent, self-confident and ambitious individual, she managed to extricate herself from her surroundings and come to America to pursue her dream of becoming a writer.

She worked for a time in Hollywood, then produced a series of best-selling novels. Her later years were spent codifying a system of philosophy (“objectivism”) based on the ideas in her novels. She enjoyed a combination of celebrity (especially at the center of a cadre of devoted disciples, which somewhat insulated her from the larger culture) and notoriety.

The essence of Rand’s teaching is that altruism is bad and selfishness is a virtue. She thinks that people would be better off if they liberated themselves from social demands to put others ahead of themselves.

Furthermore, people should root out any internal inhibitions arising from their own socially trained superego. If they managed to do all that, the way would be paved for a libertarian utopia, such as the one Rand introduces toward the end of her novel Atlas Shrugged.

These teachings represent a mixture of valuable insight, some elementary misunderstandings — and a considerable amount of naiveté.

Inspiring others

Rand’s valuable insight is a psychological one. She delves into the inhibitions — a sense of helplessness or unworthiness — that prevent many people from fulfilling their potential. She taught that each individual is responsible for his or her own life regardless of the demands of society.

A great many of her readers responded, and continue to respond, to this message in her novels. As her voluminous fan letters attest, Rand has inspired readers to take control of their lives and take responsibility for their own happiness.

Rand exemplifies and preaches ambition — dreaming big and taking risks, striving for something extraordinary. She has inspired readers to cast off their inhibitions and dream big as well.

Generations of high-tech entrepreneurs, for example, have venerated Rand and conceived their own life projects in Randian terms. For these individuals, Rand unlocked the path to ambition and (sometimes) success.

Rand’s altruism

Rand’s elementary misunderstandings involve the notion of altruism. Rand was fine with doing nice things for others when it gives us pleasure. What she objects to — the way she uses the term — is altruism understood as social responsibility or obligation.

However, there is nothing about ambition and success and taking responsibility for one’s own life and happiness — Rand’s positive message — that precludes altruism or a sense of social responsibility.

Consider social entrepreneurs, the super-altruistic visionaries who create and build organizations to help the poor, and preserve the environment for future generations, and work for peace and justice.

These individuals too can be seen as Randian heroes. The founders of the public-spirited enterprises Wikipedia and Craigslist explicitly cite Rand as an influence.

The roots of Rand’s peculiar views about altruism appear to lie in her early years. Among the very few anecdotes we have from Rand’s childhood are tales of her mother perpetrating small cruelties in the name of altruism.

For example, Mrs. Rosenbaum once made her children pack up half their toys for “storage” and then secretly gave them away, explaining later to her outraged daughter that she had too many toys and it was only right that poorer children should enjoy some of them.

Coming of age

Later, when Rand was coming of age, she was exposed to the barefaced propaganda of a communist regime that perpetrated crimes on a much larger scale, also in the name of altruism. Is it possible that Rand was never able to clearly distinguish real altruism or social responsibility from a cruel facsimile?

She certainly had a tin ear for normal social reciprocity. She entirely neglected and ignored the relatives in Chicago who helped her get on her feet when she came to the United States after she had eaten their food and accepted their money. Over the years, she managed to alienate almost every friend she made.

It is also worth noting that Rand never had children, rarely discussed her own childhood, and inhabited a social world and a literary universe almost entirely devoid of children. Parenthood is perhaps the purest expression of altruism — undertaking the awesome responsibility for the life and well-being of another person.

Rand’s utopian naivety

Imagining parenthood in Randian terms — taking care of a child one brought into the world only because, or if, or when it gives one pleasure to do so — makes a mockery of human relations.

It also gives the lie to this central pillar of Rand’s philosophy. She preferred to avoid the subject of the parent-child bond, and may have had only a superficial grasp of it.

Rand’s naiveté was the naiveté of a utopian, and it curiously mirrored that of the communists she loathed. The communists dreamed of a day when everyone would take care of everyone else (from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs), and the state would then wither away.

Rand, for her part, imagined that the pursuit of unadulterated self-interest would create a harmonious society with little need of government.

What makes Rand’s utopia a place where little or no government is required, of course, is not the fact that individuals are self-interested, but that they are virtuous. She evidently believed that the two qualities go hand in hand.

But do they? If the first self-proclaimed Randian hero, Rand herself, is the test case, the prognosis is not very good. She preached rationality, but had the most violent temper and excommunicated disciples on a whim or a suspicion.

Rand’s contradictions

She preached honest dealing, but neglected to pay back a loan from her Chicago relatives and, at times, neglected her rent and utilities payments. She preached complete truthfulness, but she also kept secrets from and lied to her disciples — about her personal history, her marital infidelities, and more.

Then again, Rand had a distinctly Nietzschean slant on morality. She was influenced by Nietzsche’s notion of the “superman” — the idea that great men and women don’t need to follow the same rules as everyone else, or that men and women become great precisely by liberating themselves from the shackles of conventional morality.

In her novels, she allowed her heroes all kinds of indulgences — including, in The Fountainhead, raping the heroine. Rand may have imagined that in getting the permission of her own husband and her lover’s wife, she had been as truthful as a great person such as herself needed to be about marital infidelity, and the great unwashed masses — including most of her coterie — did not deserve the truth.

Some of her disciples took her cue and established a pattern of behaving in notoriously arrogant and undisciplined ways.

To this day, she continues to entice readers with the promise of elite status, of having been liberated from the ensnarement of the normal social conventions of a corrupt, “altruistic” society.

Her promise is that people who follow her worldview are bound by no rule other than self-interest and rationality — however those terms are understood.

Justifying the unjustifiable

But self-interest and rationality can be interpreted in the most expedient ways to justify the most abominable acts. Rand’s real-life Nietzschean hero, after all, was a bona fide sociopath.

After a string of armed robberies, William Hickman kidnapped, killed and dismembered a 12-year-old girl. In her notes on his trial in 1928, Rand romanticized him as a strong, courageous individual who cared nothing about what judge or jury or the public thought of him, who sought to “trample society under his feet.”

The crime was incidental in Rand’s mind, and the victim didn’t merit a thought. Nor did Hickman’s plea of insanity. Her notes on Hickman the courageous antisocial hero formed the basis for characters like Howard Rourke and John Galt in her novels.

Part II of this article is here.


Rand's promise is that people who follow her worldview are bound by no rule other than self-interest and rationality — however those terms are understood.

Rand's naiveté was the naiveté of a utopian, and it curiously mirrored that of the communists she loathed.

Rand thinks people would be better off if they liberated themselves from social demands to put others ahead of themselves.

There is nothing about ambition and success that precludes altruism or a sense of social responsibility.

As an adolescent, Rant was exposed to the propaganda of a communist regime that perpetrated crimes in the name of altruism.