So, remember when Paul Ryan, as Republican vice presidential candidate, said that Ayn Rand was his inspiration to go into politics, and that he used to give out copies of “Atlas Shrugged”? Well, apparently, he changed his mind. Why? Most likely because, in addition to being a dog-eat-dog capitalist, Ayn Rand was a dyed-in-the-wool atheist and espousing her as his philosophic and public service idol had the potential of alienating his support from the religious right. Yet, according to the Christian Science Monitor (August 14, 2012), others who revered Rand include(d) Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Barry Goldwater and Clarence Thomas.
So what’s this all about? Who is Ayn Rand, anyway?
Ayn Rand (birth name Alisa Rosenbaum) was born in Russia in 1905, immigrated to the United States at the age of 21, and died in 1982. She wrote “The Fountainhead” in 1943 and “Atlas Shrugged” in 1957. She wrote other, less successful fiction, and a large amount of non-fiction, philosophical works espousing her home grown philosophy of “Objectivism”. I can’t say I understand her philosophy very well, as it seems to me filled with contradictions, but basically she believes that “reason” is the only justifiable basis for human decision making, that emotionalism is to be avoided, and that the worst evil to befall man is collectivism, by which she means not only communistic, socialistic or fascistic governmental systems, but anything that creates peer pressure and, consequently, uniformity in thinking based on something other than reason. Because reason is so central, and group-think so dangerous, she is forced to disclaim religion as a positive force. She is also to take an “every man for himself” approach to life, as forms of social altruism lead to that dangerous collectivism that she finds so detrimental.
At least, this is what I think she is saying. And so far, I think I have described a coherent philosophy (it may not be a practical philosophy, but it is a coherent philosophy). But here is where I think it gets off-track: How do you define “reason”? How do you know if someone is being objective in their decision making process? Although she does not say so in so many words, I think I could paraphrase her thoughts as follows: If you agree with my thinking, you are being rational; if you don’t, you behaving emotionally, with consequences that will undoubtedly lead to collectivism. As simple as that.
Her thinking meant that she thought that one’s first and most important goal should be personal satisfaction and happiness, that actions to achieve this goal are ethical actions, and that altruistic or collectivist thoughts are contrary to this goal. Why are collectivist thoughts contrary to a goal of personal satisfaction and happiness? Because that is what Rand believes for herself (thus, it is rational, because surely Rand is a rational creature). Anyone who disagrees with her is not using their reason; anyone who agrees with someone who disagrees with her is falling into group-think and collectivist thinking. Does that demonstrate my point?
By striving for happiness and satisfaction (using her definitions), and against collectivism, you need to protect and enhance individual liberty and property rights, so you see where the concepts of limited government and libertarianism come into play. Like night follows day. Although it’s important to note that Rand apparently did not consider herself a libertarian, because to her libertarianism would lead to anarchy and anarchy would lead to political chaos that would only be resolved by the strong taking control and establishing a collectivist regime. So you needed, in her mind, a constitutional government, which operated to protect individual liberty and property rights. Obviously a difficult balance.
I don’t think her philosophical system has ever been taken seriously by serious academic philosophers, but if you have a tendency to be a (let’s call it) constitutional libertarian (as opposed to a pure, anarchic libertarian), you can see where it might have some appeal. And, looking at it from another way, you can see it as a very American philosophical approach – not too different from that of Thomas Jefferson, perhaps. (After thinking about the Jefferson-Rand connection, I googled the two names and came up with an interesting review of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s “The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution” on the website of The Atlas Society (see http://www.atlassociety.org/philosophy_thomas_jefferson, which reaches similar conclusions; I have not looked at this further).
Having said all of this, I must now say that I am far from expert in Ayn Rand or her philosophy. I have never read “Atlas Shrugged” or “The Fountainhead” and doubt that I ever will. But about a month ago, I happened upon a book consisting of various essays written by Rand titled “The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution”, published by Signet in paperback (only) in 1971. I thought I’d give it a try, which I did.
The essays in the book were originally published (mostly in a publication that Rand herself edited) between 1965 and 1971. The first essay was about the “Free Speech Movement” at Berkeley and its repercussions. Not surprisingly, Rand found the students involved in the original campus protests as despicable and hypocritical – in the name of “free speech”, they were out to create a totalitarian society where those who disagreed with them had no free speech. And she felt just as strongly negative about the administration of the University of California system, who gave in to their demands, and to the American media, which clearly took their side and espoused their cause. And it was all because the administrators and media journalists were not able to be “rational” on the subject, but rather to thinking “collectively”. Thus, she found the entire country to be on the verge of great danger.
The second essay in the book discussed Woodstock, and the evils of much of modern philosophy (which she considered to be the origin of collectivism), especially the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, whom she seemed to believe to be the embodiment of evil thinking. (To me, it is hard to say that Kant is not a rationalist, but I digress.) She also discusses technology, and assumes that those who are “rational” support all technological advances, and that those who are emotional or collectivist do not. Because I find it difficult to support her premise, I find her arguments here somewhat airborne.
The third article discusses environmental movements in general. As you would imagine, she is against them all – they impede rational progress, they trample on individual and property rights, and so forth. And, they pit side against side. Who knows, she implies, another civil war might result.
In the other essays in the book, she argues against calling any crime “political” or “idealistic” and therefore excusing it, and against all those who protest our involvement in Vietnam. On a different, and perhaps less controversial subject, she discusses the difficulties faced by Soviet youth in even understanding what to protest much less to actually stage honest protests; of course, she uses this to give warning to this country. And in the final essay, she discusses groups that kidnapped children in earlier times and other lands, wiping away their culture and memories, and bizarrely equates them with what happens in America in progressive schools and in university teaching.
I found her quite looney, myself, and hard to take seriously. That so many on the political right apparently do is indicative of the problem we have in this country, where the right wing is populated by so many extremists. Was Ayn Rand herself one of these extremists, or was she only a novelist with some unusual views as to the nature of political man (perhaps encouraged by her experiences in pre- and post-revolutionary Russia)? You can reach your own conclusions, but I will end with one quote from page 106 of “The New Left”, in the essay titled “The Chickens’ Homecoming”: “If you wonder how it came about that the American people were never given a chance to vote on the question of whether they want to adopt socialism, yet virtually the entire program of The Communist Manifesto has been enacted into law in this country…….” [the remainder of the quote dealing with various internal actions of the American Philosophical Society is not important].
There you have it. Ayn Rand.