Ayn Rand in Modern American Politics

The ideological leader of libertarian thought may be a driving force of today's conservatism

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Ayn Rand, whose mid-century novels "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" are as widely-read as they are influential, has long been a philosophical leader of libertarian conservative thinking. With Rand's ideas more and more central to Republican opposition of Democrats in Congress and the White House, few authors would seem to be more important to understanding political discourse in 2009. The New Republic's Jonathan Chait reviewed two new biographies of Rand, using the opportunity to explore her ideas and condemn her influence. His essay, at 7,000 words, is drawing wide discussion among supporters and opponents of Randian philosophy.

  • Rand's Importance in Politics  Chait pegged the recent conservative opposition to bailouts, health care reform, and social programs like welfare as synonymous with "the ideology of Ayn Rand." He cited explicit and implicit references to Rand among conservative thought leaders from Goldwater to Reagan to today. "Her ideas have swirled below the surface of conservative thought for half a century, but now the particulars of our moment--the economic predicament, the Democratic control of government--have drawn them suddenly to the foreground," he wrote. "Rand is everywhere in this right-wing mood."
  • What Rand and Her Followers Believe  Chait described Rand's philosophy as a "generalized anti-communist and crudely Nietzschean worldview" that became "a moral defense of the individual will and unrestrained capitalism" akin to "an inverted Marxism." He summarized, "one's value to society could be measured by his income. History largely consisted of 'looters and moochers' stealing from society's productive elements." Chait mocked this as implying "that Donald Trump contributes more to society than a thousand teachers, nurses, or police officers." But it has political appeal for economic conservatism. "She did believe that the rich pulled forward society for the benefit of one and all, but beyond that, she portrayed the act of taxing the rich to aid the poor as a moral offense," Chait wrote. "Countless conservatives and libertarians have adopted this premise as an ideological foundation for the promotion of their own interests."
  • Understanding Conservatism Through Rand  One blogger called the article "essential" if one wants "to understand the America of Beck-Limbaugh." He wrote, "Ayn Rand is a uniquely American phenomenon, and unfortunately, whoever wants to understand present-day America must first know Ayn Rand." Ezra Klein lauded Chait's essay. So did Matthew Yglesias. "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," Yglesias wrote. "As if an Albert Einstein is just a kind of middleweight hack but the VP for Marketing at Federal Express is one of ubermenschen." Balloon Juice's DougJ used Chait's anti-Rand essay to conclude that conservatives hold a Rand-influenced "sociopathic indifference to the thoughts and feelings of others." Mark Kleiman quipped, "Rand is Nietzsche for stupid people."
  • Defending Rand's Importance, But Not Her Influence  Few publications are more devoted to Randian philosophy or libertarian politics than Reason, whose extensive usage of her ideas included several thoughtful essays pegged to her 100th birthday. Nick Gillespie then wrote, "Not only is Rand one of the most important figures in the libertarian movement of which reason is a part, but this magazine's name is an homage to her philosophy, Objectivism, which ascribes a key role to rationality." It's no surprise, then, that Reason's Brian Doherty defended Rand. Doherty accused Chait of attacking "a caricature," not "the real Rand, who believed that everyone deserved everything they honestly earned through uncoerced trade." Doherty disagreed with Chait's argument that "the American right is going through a significant Randian moment." He wrote, "Rand is far, far too radical a small-government libertarian for most of them to tolerate, much less emulate."
  • The Moderate Reading of Rand  Will of the League of Ordinary Gentlemen argued that, even if an absolute reading of Rand would be "crazy," her ideas remain worthwhile and even important. "I think we can appreciate Rand as a necessary corrective to an overly-deterministic view of individual achievement without subscribing to her crazy philosophy," he wrote. Will listed the "empirical," "prudential," and "moral" cases against "redistribution," the Randian word for all things taxation and regulation. He suggested that his own moderate reading of Rand was "worth remembering in light of the clownish antics of Rick Santelli and the more extreme tea party activists."
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