Ayn Rand: The Siren of U.S. Conservatism (Part II)
How have the ideas of Ayn Rand shaped contemporary Republican thinking on economic and political issues?
November 3, 2012
In its purest form, Ayn Rand’s philosophy is startlingly radical and of dubious moral value, and in any case makes apparently impossible demands on human nature. (Part I of this article is here.)
Yet Rand has enjoyed a wide following. Who looks up to Rand, and what have they absorbed from her writing? How is Rand’s influence felt in today’s political culture?
Rand’s first hard-core disciples, her inner circle in what was called, with irony, the “Collective,” were overwhelmingly Jews of Eastern European heritage, like herself, who hailed from Canada and the United States.
They were secular Jews but unassimilated — people who didn’t quite “fit in” in their communities. It would appear that in Rand’s circle they found a place to belong, one that affirmed their undoubtedly great intelligence and permitted them a feeling of superiority.
A mini-Stalinist society
It was by all accounts an oppressive environment, and some have compared it to a mini-Stalinist society, complete with periodic purges.
Members of the Collective strove for super-human individualism on the basis of cold rationality. They managed to produce a stifling conformity (since there is only one most rational answer to any question) in matters great and small — politics, dress, musical and artistic taste.
Rand’s influence on the wider world of American politics was first felt in the fledgling libertarian movement. Rand herself refused any association with the libertarians, and called them plagiarists and worse. But her writings helped galvanize the movement.
Over the decades, as the libertarians have grown in stature and influence within the conservative “big tent,” Randian ideas have become more mainstream.
Individual Rand devotees have occasionally achieved positions of power and been able to shape policy. The most prominent of these was Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006.
Rand’s early disciples
Greenspan was among the few early disciples who remained on good terms with Rand to the end of her life. As many commentators have noted, Greenspan’s policy career provides a cautionary tale about putting Rand’s ideas into practice.
Greenspan wrote articles for Rand’s publications espousing an ideology of extreme deregulation, looking forward to a world in which even building codes were abolished. Such requirements simply set low expectations, he thought.
“If building codes set minimum standards of construction,” Greenspan wrote in an essay he contributed to Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, “a builder does not get very much competitive advantage by exceeding those standards and, accordingly, he tends to meet only the minimum.”
Why not take away all codes and let builders figure out for themselves how safe they need to make their buildings?
When he was in a position of power inside the Beltway, Greenspan was able to conduct the experiment on a supreme scale: he presided over and lent support to a systematic dismantling of financial regulations designed to provide minimum protection to creditors.
And he got his answer: when minimum standards are taken away, you get chaos, disaster. For deregulation does not mean eliminating standards, it means lowering them.
When the minimum consumer protection expected of a builder or a banker is zero, he does not get very much competitive advantage by exceeding those standards. Accordingly, he tends to meet only the minimum — zero — and the consumer suffers the consequences.
The conventional journalistic account of the Greenspan story ends in 2008 with his acknowledging to Congress that he recognized a “flaw” in the economic ideology that had guided him for decades. The Randian policy program of extreme deregulation was dead, it seemed — refuted by events and repudiated by its great architect.
Reaffirming Randian convictions
But that is not how the story ends. Greenspan has backtracked from his statement on numerous occasions and reaffirmed his Randian convictions. And in the culture at large, proponents of extreme anti-regulatory ideology are still heard.
Indeed, the Republican Party is leaning ever more heavily in the direction of Rand-influenced libertarianism. Reductions in regulation and taxation, always front and center in the Party’s platform, are increasingly discussed not merely as purported means to economic prosperity but as moral imperatives.
At the same time, the incoming president of the Cato Institute, the libertarians’ flagship think tank, has declared an intention to adhere even more strictly to a Randian orthodoxy.
Sales of Rand’s books have skyrocketed since the financial crisis. According to the Ayn Rand Institute, Atlas Shrugged sold more copies in 2011 than it did when it was a best seller in 1957.
While some see the economic crisis as proof of the bankruptcy of Randian policies, other see the government’s struggle to response to the crisis as a replay of the slow societal meltdown depicted in Atlas Shrugged. They are convinced that we are on a path marked out prophetically by Rand.
The Republicans’ Randian moment
An observer of Republican politics familiar with Rand’s ideas would have to conclude that the 2012 campaign season has been the season of Ayn Rand.
The selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate is the most obvious signpost. For political reasons, Ryan has tried to distance himself from Rand. But his affinity is well known.
He has addressed crowds at organizations dedicated to promoting Rand’s thinking. In a 2005 speech at the Atlas Society, then-Congressman Ryan described the profound influence Rand has had on his thinking. He has distributed Rand’s writings to his staff.
The Randian mood of the Romney campaign, though, consists of far more than Ryan’s private views. It is pervasive, in discussions of taxes and regulations as moral issues. Perhaps most glaringly, it has been visible in Romney’s comments about the 47% of American who don’t earn enough to pay federal income tax.
Ayn Rand taught that “ideas matter.” Given that we are living in a peculiarly Randian Republican moment, a good way to analyze some of the current presidential campaign propaganda is to strip it down to its Randian essentials.
Exhibit 1: Preoccupation with the notion of “socialism”
The current obsession of conservative pundits in the United States with the threat of “socialism” and “communism” is, on its surface, difficult to fathom.
A recent political ad by Thomas Peterffy, the billionaire founder of a stock brokerage, has brought the message to viewers in major television markets, conjuring up images of the dark days of totalitarian communism in Peterffy’s native Hungary.
But the Soviet empire is long gone, and international Marxism is a dead letter. U.S. socialist political parties are even more marginal than the Greens. The Democratic Party is a centrist party by international standards. Why, in the 21st century, the hysteria about socialism?
The answer lies, at least in part, in Rand’s ideological paranoia about Soviet communism.
Rand’s younger sister Nora, who grew up in Russia, when finally reunited with Rand in New York in later years could not shake the fear that Rand’s chauffeur and cook were U.S. government spies. Rand too — understandably, given the trauma of her adolescent years — had similarly magnified ideas of the menace of communism.
In her black-and-white way, she equated Soviet tyranny and collectivist ideology with each other and with governmental activity of every sort. She saw the threat of international communism in every shadow, and resisted it with every fiber.
The immorality of nearly every aspect of government was a central theme of Rand’s ideology. Rand’s system of belief also gave us the notion that there is a perfectly transparent slippery slope from almost any sort of government coercion to Soviet-style despotism, and from almost any sort of government service to helpless dependency.
Rand’s paranoia was entirely understandable. It is hardly necessary that the rest of us share it. No one needs to be burdened with the idea that a health care bill is the moral equivalent of a pogrom.
Exhibit 2: Worshiping the wealthy
Both left and right have been playing at class welfare this election cycle. The way the right is going about it has a peculiarly Randian imprimatur.
Consider Mitt Romney’s derision of the 47% of Americans who don’t earn enough to pay federal income tax. (He ignored the fact this group pays other federal, state, and local taxes, many of which are regressive.)
Romney accused these citizens — half of the nation — of lacking in personal responsibility, being dependent on government, and having an entitlement mentality. The speech could have come straight out of Atlas Shrugged.
Romney may not be a Rand follower himself, but he has clearly absorbed the talking points, whether consciously or merely from digesting the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.
In Rand’s literary imagination there were two kinds of people: the productive and the parasites. The productive, an elite minority, create and amass wealth.
Meanwhile, the masses of parasites use their numbers and the power of government to extract that wealth. The less well-off are derided for their “victim mentality,” while the wealthy elite are seen as the true victims.
Rand lived in a simple, polarized world. She exhibited little curiosity about the lives of others, especially those she deemed “degenerate,” whether individuals or groups (e.g., Native Americans, Arabs). This lack of curiosity and empathy was her own personal limitation and failing.
That in the fantasy world of Atlas Shrugged, she should paint the masses with a broad brush as entitlement-minded and lacking in personal responsibility is an acceptable if dubious literary conceit.
That a candidate for the U.S. presidency should spout these generalizations as if they applied to the real 47% in all its diversity — students and the elderly, educators and military personnel, the working poor and the middle class, lifelong Republicans and Democrats — is merely inane.
As for the wealthy: In the current campaign, we see the Randian moral double standard applied on a class basis by some conservative commentators. The poor are chastised for accepting government assistance, but no stigma attaches to the wealthy who (like Romney at Bain Capital) accept government subsidies.
The poor are scolded for not contributing enough in taxes, but Romney’s relatively low tax rate (low by middle-class standards, because based on capital gains rather than earned income) is justified and defended.
Exhibit 3: Individualism
The central positive message of Rand was individual responsibility and individual initiative. These themes are at the center of the Romney’s campaign, and the guiding sentiment behind the adoption of the “We Built This” slogan.
Despite the mileage Romney got out of the slogan, one of the great ironies of the campaign has been that there is really not all that much difference between his views and those originally articulated by President Obama.
Romney talks about the supportive environment of family, church and community that enables the individual entrepreneur to thrive. Obama spoke of the inspiring teacher, the previous generations of entrepreneurs and workers on whose shoulders we stand.
It is only through Randian glasses that Obama’s views can be interpreted as “collectivist” and Romney’s as radically individualist. That this debate has become a flashpoint in the campaign speaks to the pervasiveness of the Randian perspective.
The Russian option
Ayn Rand is a peculiar figure in the history of American political consciousness. She embraced classic American values like hard work, individual responsibility and free enterprise.
But as they passed through the prism of her tortured mind into her romantic novels, they refracted into grotesque caricatures of themselves.
Hers is a black-and-white world in which reason, wealth, virtue and free enterprise are pitted against unreason, squalor, mediocrity and collectivism, in an apocalyptic drama painted right across the body of the American public.
The American political tradition has always balanced freedom with responsibility, and moved in pragmatic steps rather than utopian leaps. Rand’s passionate lunge for absolute freedom is out of step. It is essentially Russian in character, coming from a land where the task of the intelligentsia has always been radical and revolutionary protest against autocracy.
The Republican Party is facing an identity crisis. In recent decades, it has been the bastion of the Protestant white male — now, increasingly, a demographically endangered species.
To survive, the party must adapt. Seizing on Ayn Rand’s simple story of virtue and vice, heroes and villains, “socialism” and radical individualism, is a strategy that must seem particularly tempting.
But it is both unwise and dangerous. It divides rather than unites. It focuses energy on nonexistent threats (socialism) rather than real, pressing, complex problems.
It demands an adherence to a black-and-white worldview and discourages curiosity about the messiness of reality and the legitimate perspectives of other people.
And it is pierced through with a dangerous and anti-democratic Nietzschean quality, a moral double-standard for the “right sort of people” — the wealthy and the self-styled virtuous, the heroes of the Randian drama in their head.
Part I of this article is here.
An observer of Republican politics would have to conclude that the 2012 campaign season has been the season of Ayn Rand.
As the libertarians have grown in stature and influence within the conservative "big tent," Randian ideas have become more mainstream.
Sales of Rand's books have skyrocketed since the financial crisis. Atlas Shrugged sold more copies in 2011 than it did in 1957.
It is hardly necessary that the rest of us share Rand's paranoia. No one needs to be burdened with the idea that a health care bill is the moral equivalent of a pogrom.
Mitt Romney's derision of the 47% of Americans who don't pay federal income tax could have come straight out of Atlas Shrugged.