Meeting Ayn Rand on the Las Vegas Strip

For eight days last summer, a new generation of Randians was indoctrinated in the auditoriums of The Venetian. Where better to absorb Atlas Shrugged 's teachings than in a city of extremes?

111-degree heat is confounding, a joke your phone is playing on you when you arrive at McCarran Airport and check the temperature on the Las Vegas Strip. On June 30, a year earlier, the city tied a record of 117 degrees—a small consolation to those shouldering their bags at the end of an impossible cab line. By the time I reached the front, I was defeated and dripping. “Thank God for air conditioning,” I told the driver. He smiled gently. “Some people don’t have it,” he said, a statement as obvious now as it seemed inexplicable then.

They’re not hidden, those people. You can see them at work up and down the Strip. Security guards in short shorts and pastel polos, and lubricious barkers beckoning you indoors. There are middle-aged men standing like scarecrows along the sidewalk, fliers outstretched in either hand, their sandwich-boards swearing “unforgettable” excursions: Take a Helicopter Ride Across the Grand Canyon!, Shoot a Machine Gun on the Strip! And all about you the army of porters power-washing sidewalks, polishing windows, and endlessly snatching trash. I watched one woman ride an outdoor escalator. She was bent over the handrail like a wilted flower to dust the silver panels below.

Then there are those more aptly described as “working” the Strip. The ubiquitous costumed characters: Darth Vader, Megatron, a horde of minions from Despicable Me. For a few bucks, they’ll take a picture with the kids; for the adults, sham showgirls will gamely do the same. Then there are the street performers—living statues, sleight-of-hand artists, amateur acrobats stripped to the waist—and the vendors hawking trinkets, temporary tattoos, and (bless them) bottled water. And of course there are the panhandlers whose signs waver between the miserable and the mordant (Help! I need money for pot, beer, and hookers!).

But for the uninitiated, the most striking may be the card clickers, wordless agents of the world’s oldest profession. Prostitution is technically illegal in Las Vegas, but not the meretricious comfort of an “escort,” a service abetted by a legion of Latin Americans, men and women alike, wearing oversized t-shirts that make them walking billboards for GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS, HOT SEXY GIRLS, or, for the impatient, GIRLS DIRECT TO YOU 10 MINUTES. They are not allowed to solicit you, not verbally at least, so instead they snap against their palms the flipbooks of filthy pictures they extend to passers-by. There is an important lesson about Las Vegas in the “services” they insinuate: Even in the 111-degree heat, there are always worse fates indoors.

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A city that works by extremes is an appropriate place to celebrate Ayn Rand—or, more specifically, Objectivism, the philosophy she conceived and the occasion for the conference I was in Las Vegas to attend. Rand made a name for herself writing novels in the 40s and 50s before trying to articulate the worldview they implied. The Romantic Manifesto, The Virtue of Selfishness, and Capitalism:  The Unknown Ideal have never enjoyed the popular appeal of The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged, but then again, they weren’t meant to. If art, for Rand, was “the integrator of metaphysics,” the precepts themselves warranted description.

Ayn Rand’s intellectual legacy is mixed at best. Anecdotal evidence suggests that elements of her philosophy have made their way into “lit crit” seminars and (a supreme irony) gender studies, and for many years I have assigned her essay “What Is Capitalism?” to my business-ethics classes. Yet, when it comes to “real” philosophers—a designation that, for better or worse, indicates a perch in a Philosophy Department—Objectivism mostly goes unmentioned.

In this respect, Rand’s academic reputation resembles Karl Marx’s. The unfinished saga that is Das Kapital is now essentially ignored by its intended adversaries, the superintendents of an “economic science,” whereas faculties across the humanities still plumb works like On the Jewish Question, The Holy Family, or Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, an effort Marx thought so highly of he abandoned it in a desk.

But the trajectory of their intellectual legacies isn’t the only resemblance. Much like Marx, Rand’s relevance to scholars is largely underwritten by her ideological influence. Even if academics remain unconvinced by her arguments about aesthetics, ethics, and political economy, they have good reason to read Rand for her abiding significance to the conservative movement.

That relationship can hardly be described as cozy. Set aside the College Republicans and Chamber of Commerce types who occasionally look in the mirror and hope to find a glimpse of John Galt. An unapologetic Objectivist is about as welcome in conservative circles as a Trotskyite in liberal ones. The ambivalence is not so much a matter of policy disputes—though, in both cases, they are so great as to constitute a difference of kind, not degree—but of the patience required to accommodate the nervous tic of the political radical, the inevitable tendency to make the good the enemy of the perfect.

When I told a cousin who works for a libertarian think tank about attending an Objectivist conference, he rolled his eyes and muttered, “The Bible.” He was referring, of course, to Atlas Shrugged, the nearly 1,100-page tome that William F. Buckley, Jr. once copped to having “flogged” himself to get through. In the late 50s, the reactionary editor of the National Review dispatched Whittaker Chambers—the former Soviet spy whose conversion story, Witness, Ronald Reagan credited with flipping him from a New Dealer to a right-wing warrior—to write a scorched-earth review that would serve as a forcible parting of ways between the Objectivists and the upstart conservative movement. Chambers famously obliged. “Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained,” he wrote of Atlas Shrugged. “Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.”

For Chambers, the problem with the novel was not so much the views it espoused—“a great many of us dislike much that Miss Rand dislikes, quite as heartily as she does”—but the manner in which they were prosecuted. “It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation,” he said of the book’s ideological call to arms. “Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible.”

If Buckley, by way of Chambers, aimed to make it acceptable for conservatives to shun Rand and her acolytes, she did little to dispel the stereotype of the implacable ideologue. Just as Marx strained to distance himself from the utopian socialism of Saint-Simon and Proudhon, Rand didn’t hesitate to stiff-arm groups that, to the untrained eye at least, seemed like natural allies. “Above all, do not join the wrong ideological groups or movements, in order to ‘do something,’” she warned her followers in the Objectivist newsletter. Such groups included conservatives and libertarians, both of whom perverted capitalism, the first by substituting “theocracy for capitalism,” the second “anarchism for capitalism.” For Rand, the free market was neither a shortcut to the common good nor the commercial incarnation of “all is permitted.” Instead, the system best embodied the only principle of distributive justice she recognized: To each according to his ability—period.

As Rand famously described it, the “essence” of Objectivism was “man as a heroic being” with “productive achievement as his noblest activity.” It follows from this that every great work indicates a great man, making a dazzling skyscraper (Howard Roark’s achievement in The Fountainhead) or a revolutionary engine (John Galt’s in Atlas Shrugged) nothing less than a “monument to human morality.” And even if Rand would agree that good work is its own best reward, it’s far from the only one a great man might expect in a world over which the invisible hand holds sway.

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The Venetian Las Vegas is Sheldon Adelson’s monument to human morality. The hotel, which opened in 1999, replaced the venerable Sands Casino with a simulated medley of major sights in Venice. You can enter beneath an obelisk tower that recalls St. Mark's Campanile before stepping onto a moving sidewalk to cross the arched back of the Rialto Bridge and glide into the Doge’s Palace. The actual palace in Venice received over 1.3 million visitors in 2010. The impostor receives 50,000 a day.

Once inside, you have to follow the arcade of shops along a faux canal, complete with recumbent lovers and crooning gondoliers, to find the gilded catacombs that are the conference halls. It’s not easy. Casino complexes are designed to disorient, denying those inside any sign of reality: where they are, what time it is, why, perhaps, they ought to go home already. Every time I turned a corner I seemed to find my way back into the casino, a coincidence that was at once irritating and entirely unremarkable.

At last, a waitress was kind enough to suspend her delivery of vodka sodas to shepherd me in the right direction, so I was only a few minutes late to the 8:40 a.m. presentation. Technically, the eight-day conference was nearly half over, though the first three days were reserved for “young adults”—college kids, mostly, who may have been drawn to Objectivism by the extensive campus outreach carried out by the Ayn Rand Institute (or ARI), the group that convened the conference. ARI considers itself the custodian of Ayn Rand’s legacy, a claim disputed by the smaller Atlas Society, another non-profit whose organizers broke with ARI in the late 80s, a few years after Rand’s death, over disagreements involving the amenability of Objectivism to further philosophical development. ARI takes the stronger view that Objectivism begins, and ends, with the word of Ayn Rand, which is probably why each day of the conference commenced with an introduction to her writing.

The day that I attended, ARI’s in-house philosopher, Onkar Ghate, provided an overview of Objectivism’s central tenets. It included terms like “psycho-epistemology” and other doctrinal patois that modern philosophers favor to give even the most mundane claims a metaphysical sheen, yet it also addressed, rather nakedly, the self-help impulse that accounts, in large part, for Rand’s continued popularity.

Happiness, Ghate explained, is the “moral purpose” of life, and the role of philosophy in that quest is to ensure that you are “fully thinking” about the views that inundate you on a daily basis. The opinions of others—whether they involve art, politics, ethics, or even personal priorities—have a tendency to shape you, so you must be on your guard. Philosophy will help you to assess these views so that you choose “the right ones and get rid of the wrong ones,” assembling a sound set of beliefs that will guide you in determining how to spend your days.

As life advice goes, this is relatively benign, and it helps to explain why Atlas Shrugged, a novel that continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year, ranked second behind the Bible in a 1991 survey sponsored by the Book-of-the Month Club and the Library of Congress to determine the single work that had “made a difference” in the lives of respondents. The power of the novel, Ghate averred, is that it is “intensely personal,” for the experiences of the characters illustrate the hurdles one faces in making herself “the kind of person” she longs to be.

Maybe so, but a philosophy that relies so heavily on encouragement risks devolving into platitude. It spends a lot of time telling you what you should do without addressing why it might be hard, or even impossible, for you to do it. Of course, Rand went to great lengths to describe what might prevent someone from becoming the “heroic being” she envisioned, and if Ghate’s talk stuck to the sunnier elements of her system, the storm clouds gathered with the start of the next session, “The Inequality Debate.”

That talk, by Yaron Brook, ARI’s executive director, served as a keynote for the general conference. Brook is the face of ARI and a frequent guest on cable-news programs. He began by asking the audience to engage in the “unusual” exercise of putting themselves in the mindset of “a dedicated progressive liberal.” By this, he did not mean just anyone who voted for Barack Obama or even someone who routinely supports progressive causes. No, by “dedicated progressive liberal,” Brook had in mind “the intellectuals,” a group, by his description, that seemed both amorphous and omnipresent.

“The Left dominates our intellectual world,” Brook declared. And yet, despite its success, the stated aims of the Left are merely a pretext for an agenda far more sinister than anything contained in the Democratic Party’s platform or, for that matter, a Michael Moore movie. Take the professed concern for the growing disparity between the very rich and the rest of America: The liberal impulse to address this gap may seem rooted in a sense of fairness or even a desire to promote social cohesion, but viewing it as such is extremely naïve. Indeed, it takes at face value the rhetoric of the Left, which keeps one from seeing it for what it really is: the language of a decades-long con game. “What they’re really after is not the well-being of anybody,” Brook explained. “They want power. They want to rule us.”

It gets worse. For if “the intellectuals” use fear-mongering around the so-called problem of inequality to seize power, they wield it in favor of a nihilistic vision of the human condition. They aim to systematically undermine and annul the great achievements of heroic men and women, an effort that will not only corrupt the “American sense of life” but one that stabs at the very heart of Ayn Rand’s vision. “We need to tell the truth about these bastards,” Brook said. “We need to reveal them for what they really are. We need to expose them to the American people for what their agenda really is. They’re haters. Their focus is on hatred. Their focus is on tearing down. Their focus is on destroying.”

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For those of us who might fairly be placed among the “bastards,” Brook’s rhetoric gives special meaning to that hopeful motto, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Even at McCarran Airport, it’s nearly unavoidable, a strange sight until you realize the slogan is not merely an inducement, but a warning that underwrites what makes the city unique. All vacations promise some kind of escape, but escapism is the allure of Las Vegas. The city—with its shows, its clubs, even its casinos—is ultimately incidental. You come to leave your self behind.

Escapism of a different sort is also the allure of a radical philosophy. It seduces not by promising a temporary solution to the contest between the grosser passions and personal integrity—the very conflict that can sometimes make escaping the “real world” so enticing—but by providing an alternative vision of what the “real world” constitutes. Base and Superstructure. Unconscious and Conscious. The City of God and the City of Man. These dichotomies assume that the world we see is not the one that must be reckoned with, that there is another world, with its own shadowy forces, its own systemizing logic, its own uncanny story. Here is the world that matters, says the radical philosophy. Not only does it precede the apparent world, it predominates.

Being invited to glimpse such a world can be beguiling, especially for the lost and lonely, for nothing affirms a sense of significance, even superiority, like believing yourself a keeper of the ultimate secret. And yet, if the evangelists of a radical philosophy have the forehand advantage of flattery, they still have to contend with the hazard of false consciousness. They must convince the uninitiated that many of the problems they see in the world—indeed, often the very ones that make them liable to conversion in the first place—are irrelevant, moot, or even mistaken.

The afterward of Brook’s talk provided an illustration. A catechumen made his way to the microphone to ask the kind of question one might expect to be addressed by a session titled “The Inequality Debate.” Having spent a few days in Las Vegas, the young man was distressed by the evidence of poverty he had seen on the Strip, which can be considerable, given that Nevada’s tourism and housing industries were devastated by the financial crisis and the state still has the second-highest unemployment rate in the country. So much of the presentation seemed to revolve around a dispute between elites over the philosophical implications of inequality, he said, but what about “the street junkies? They are so miserable and they sleep on the street.” His question was simple: “Why isn’t the free market hiring those people?”

Brook’s response began unevenly, detouring through an observation about the malice of minimum-wage laws and a presentist history of the progressive era before turning to the young man’s question. “None of these phenomena that you’re seeing out there, homeless people and so on, are phenomena of capitalism,” he declared. The people outside the gates of The Venetian, hustling in the 111-degree heat, their fates are the “phenomena of mixed economy,” the side-effects of social welfare policies and regulations. They exist despite capitalism, not because of it.

The young man did not seem entirely satisfied with the answer, and Brook, himself, seemed hesitant. By and large, when it comes to questions about the structural shortcomings of capitalism, the most persuasive answers will be of a dry and technical nature. They won’t savor of the sulfurous clash between the forces of good and evil, an ideological battle to which Objectivists might not only contribute, but one which (if you take their word for it) they are destined to lead. “There is nobody out there who can talk about self-esteem, about individualism, and about capitalism with the moral certainty and the moral fervor we can,” Brook declared. “Objectivism is the only bulwark to what the Left is doing. The fate of Western Civilization depends on what we do.”

This is the familiar pledge of a radical philosophy. To the unaccustomed ear, it can sometimes sound like a clarion call, piercing, at last, the din of confusion. Otherwise, it can seem like the unnerving pitch of the card-clicker, an invitation to a strange and sinister world that one is very relieved to escape.