Libertarian History/Philosophy

Rand and the Right

Reflections on the 50th anniversary of Atlas Shrugged

|

Because of her opposition to New Deal government controls, novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand started off thinking of herself as a conservative. By the time her blockbuster novel, "Atlas Shrugged," was published 50 years ago this week, she'd changed her mind. She decided she was a radical—a "radical for capitalism," that is.

Conservatives, she'd come to believe, were insufficiently principled in their defense of a free society and once the novel was out, the official conservative movement turned its back on her.

While "Atlas Shrugged" was a ferocious defense of certain values shared by many conservatives, then and now—limited government, economic liberty and the primacy of individual rights over perceived collective needs—National Review's editor and conservative movement leader William Buckley found the novel's intransigence and Godlessness, alarming. He assigned communist-turned-conservative Whittaker Chambers to review it.

After squinting at this sweeping, thousand page-plus epic, portraying America's collapse thanks to a rising tide of unlimited government, economic restrictions and the subordination of individual rights to perceived collective needs, Chambers pronounced his judgment. With a sighing, refined hostility, he found it "silly," "preposterous" and hateful. "From almost any page," he declared, in a bizarre and oft-cited passage, "a voice can be heard . . . commanding: 'To a gas chamber—go!'"

Mr. Buckley and his National Review were trying to build a politically viable postwar right, including a border fence around respectable conservatism. Rand's ferocious and uncompromising opposition, not only to any government action beyond protecting individual rights, but also to religion and tradition for its own sake, put her outside that fence. She was too absolutist, too outrageous, too faithless.

After that Chambers review, Rand saw mainstream conservatism as her avowed enemy. Meanwhile, a distinctly libertarian political and intellectual movement was on the rise, one enormously influenced by Rand. Yet many conservatives still loved her, even if as a sometimes guilty pleasure, especially on college campuses

Her daring, root-and-branch assault on the postwar liberal welfare state consensus made her beloved even among a rising generation of young conservatives, without making them full-bore Objectivists (her name for her philosophy). For just one example, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his new memoir that Rand's "vision of the world made more sense to me than that of my left-wing friends," although he "didn't fully accept its tenets."

And Rand was, despite her exile from the conservative movement, a fan of Barry Goldwater, the modern Right's first serious presidential candidate. She told him "I regard you as the only hope of the anti-collectivist side on today's political scene, and I have defended your position at every opportunity." For his part, Goldwater said that "I have enjoyed very few books in my life as much as . . . 'Atlas Shrugged.'"

Rand and a fair number of her closest followers were notorious for casting into outer darkness anyone who might agree with everything she advocated, but not for their reasons, properly deduced from the facts of reality. This perceived dogmatism helped make her seem a silly character to many, liberal or conservative. And yet, when it came to Goldwater, Rand wrote something wise that conservatives should contemplate, and return the favor: "If he advocates the right political principles for the wrong metaphysical reasons, the contradiction is his problem, not ours."

In other words, when it comes to politics, politics is more important than metaphysics. And Rand had plenty to offer conservatives about politics that is still salient.

Even when reinforcing her exile from respectable conservatism in a 1967 National Review feature story, M. Stanton Evans recognized that "there are a number of subjects on which Miss Rand is right . . . Foremost among these is that class of issues having to do with the secular conditions of freedom." He notes her "excellent grasp of the way capitalism is supposed to work" and her "powerful" critique of "bureaucrats, planners, and social engineers." Also, her "effective" satire of "the intellectual flux and slither in which modern relativism seeks to bury moral issues."

That's a great list of virtues, and exactly what modern conservatism needs, in the political and cultural wars of today. Rand's virtues as a political thinker and polemicist touch on the most important matters of modern politics.

She recognized, not merely that government shouldn't take as much from us as it does, but also that it can't justly and pragmatically do as much as it currently tries to do. As government spending, even under Republican rule, grows faster than ever before; as new plans to further bureaucratize American health care arise; as the benefits of free trade and free movement of capital and labor are under continued assault—Rand's consistent, passionate and even heroic defense of American freedom is sorely needed.

Rand's insistence that all values be rationally chosen made her "bad," in modern conservative terms, on the family and on religion. But if the GOP can contemplate nominating twice-divorced Rudolph Giuliani (who agrees with Rand on abortion rights), conservatives should realize political movements can no longer demand agreement on matters of faith and family. They need to recognize—as Rand was, ironically, mocked for failing to recognize—that metaphysics and religion are extra-political.

Why does she matter to modern politics? It's not like she is around for conservatives to seek her endorsement. But it is worthwhile for political activists to remember that Ayn Rand was utterly uncompromising on how government needed to respect the inalienable right of Americans to live their own lives, and of American business to grow, thrive, innovate and improve our lives without niggling interference.

Her message of political freedom was enthusiastic, and optimistic, and immensely popular. No major American political party has embraced her message in full. But millions of Americans have voted for her with their pocket books, and hundreds of thousands continue to do so every year.

On the 50th anniversary of her greatest novel, her advocacy of the still "unknown ideal" of truly free market capitalism is something that America, and the conservative movement, needs to reconsider.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.  This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

NEXT: General Disarray

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. is it true that ayn rand wore big gold dollar-sign-bling necklaces generations before it became a hip-hop accessory/cliche? i think i saw it in a movie once.

  2. The problem today is that the metaphysics and religion is all that’s left of the modern conservative movement, so there is no way that Rand would be embraced by them. Seriously, are there any major groups that still drive the Republican party today other than the religious right?

  3. If Rand supported Goldwater, she would most likely embrace Ron Paul, were she alive today. There is not much metaphysics and religion in his campaign, it seems to me. Get the State off our backs, end our absurd social engineering expeditions overseas, get rid of the federal reserve; it seems to resonating with a lot of voters.

    Buckley complained about the sexual liberality in Rand’s novels.

  4. yes she did…

    she also carried a gold-knobbed cane and wore a cape. She’s like Frank’s lawyer from Seinfeld!

  5. Actually, Rand would find Ron Paul’s stance on abortion to be very problematic, not to mention his religiosity. She refused to support Reagan because of his opposition to abortion rights. She was ferociously pro-choice, as one would expect from someone who believes people have near-absolutely ownership over their own bodies. If she couldn’t take Reagan on that issue, I doubt she could take Paul.

    She might well have a few issues with Paul’s stance on immigration as well, but that one’s trickier.

  6. Don’t suppose you could link/quote something of hers on abortion? I would be interested to see how she handled the transition point – that is, the point at which control over your body gives way to another person’s (namely, the fetus/infant) right to not be killed.

  7. An Ayn Rand thread? Has it been that long already? My how the time passes.. For anyone new to this site, please note that Ayn Rand threads are usually a Two-Minute-Hate and not much more. Please take this into consideration before posting.

  8. I find no problem reconciling Dr. Pauls stance on abortion with absolute self-ownership: you can only own your body, not someone else’s, right? Well, once that fetus has a heartbeat, it ain’t your body any more. It belongs to another human, who also has absolute self ownership. It may be in your womb, but it is not your body.

    My $.02

  9. If Ayn Rand were alive today, she would despise Ron Paul. There’s no surprise there, she despised ALL libertarians. She denounced the three biggest names in libertarian thought: Mises, Rothbard and Friedman. For starters, she would denounce Ron Paul for not supporting the Iraq war. For someone who advocated individualism, she demanded rigid conformance to her doctrines. While it’s mellowed a bit over time, in its heyday Objectivism was nothing short of a religious cult.

  10. Dangerman, I agree.

    RC Dean, don’t hold your breath.

    Marcvs, good call.

    Anyway, Ayn Rand and abortion in one thread? This could get ugly.

  11. If Ayn Rand believed one should have “absolute ownership over one’s body”, then it follows logically that she would be pro-life, not pro-choice, as the baby inside a woman is a separate body growing inside a woman, and not a part of the woman’s body. The baby cannot exercise its own rights over it’s body until it is born, so if that is what she believed, why was she not pro-life? It seems that her philosophy could push her either way.

    There are no kids in THE FOUNTAINHEAD or ATLAS SHRUGGED. Maybe she disliked having children around, and her stance on abortion stemmed more from that.

    One does not have to invoke metaphysics or religion to argue that a fetus is enough of a person to have the fundamental right to live.

  12. For starters, she would denounce Ron Paul for not supporting the Iraq war.

    Why?

  13. she would denounce Ron Paul for not supporting the Iraq war.

    She would denounce any warmonger for not advocating the use of nuclear weapons on Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and any of the other sand countries.
    She would denounce Guiliani as a pragmatist.
    She would denounce Paul as an anti-woman religionist.
    She would stick a hot poker up Hillary’s fat socialist ass.
    She would hate every politician, despise almost every single one of their ideas, tell everyone to fuck off and slink back into her NYC apartment to fantasize about getting boned by Nathaniel Branden.

  14. My post should have started with italics:

    she would denounce Ron Paul for not supporting the Iraq war.

  15. Having said all that, I am a fan of the woman.
    But the fact is that Rand, for all her contributions to the idea of individualism, was a state-worshiper.

  16. Too bad “Rand’s ferocious and uncompromising opposition …to any government action beyond protecting individual rights” did not prevent from accepting a free university education from the Soviet government that she despised as thoroughly evil, just before she left the country. This was at a time very few people had degrees, even the heads of major corporations. Just like a self-described “Objectivist” prof I once had who didn’t see the contradiction between his stated beliefs and his tenured position at a publicly subsidized university. Sorry for the impolite intrusion of reality into this forum.

  17. Here’s a link to a discussion of Ayn Rand and abortion rights (scroll down the page):

    http://www.aynrandstudies.com/jars/v2_n2/2_2toc.asp

  18. So Rand’s position was that since an infant cannot be a moral agent, it has no rights? At what age do we acquire this agency? This link was not very forthcoming for me, just a list of authors and topics/theses….

  19. So Rand’s position was that since an infant cannot be a moral agent, it has no rights?

    Yep.

    At what age do we acquire this agency?

    Abortion Debate 101.

  20. However, not “infant.” She said wrote that “rights begin at birth.”

    Sounds almost … religious.

  21. She would denounce Peter Singer as advocate of murder, BTW.

  22. She would denounce any warmonger for not advocating the use of nuclear weapons on Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and any of the other sand countries.
    She would denounce Guiliani as a pragmatist.
    She would denounce Paul as an anti-woman religionist.
    She would stick a hot poker up Hillary’s fat socialist ass.
    She would hate every politician, despise almost every single one of their ideas, tell everyone to fuck off and slink back into her NYC apartment to fantasize about getting boned by Nathaniel Branden.

    She sounds like she’s setting up her own level of morality, setting herself up, essentially, as “God” of a new philosophy. She kicked out Nathaniel Branden of her “circle” for a disagreement. If she had a religion (and she does), it would be quite a radical fundamentalist one as Jamie points out.

    In any case, I am reading her The Viryue of Selfishness. Still in the beginning. Nothing to argue against yet. I liked her take on selfishness as a virtue (an I do agree with her on that, though I still believe that altruism can be done through a purely selfish need).

  23. She denounced the three biggest names in libertarian thought: Mises, Rothbard and Friedman.

    Rand didn’t denounce Mises, and she promoted his books in her newsletters.

  24. She kicked out Nathaniel Branden of her “circle” for a disagreement.

    Not quite. She excommunicated Branden because he began banging a former client of his psychology practice, and attempted to hide it. To Rand, Branden’s one-time lover, it was treasonable, and he wasn’t even allowed to attend her funeral.

  25. Rand didn’t denounce Mises …

    Well, there was that notable public blow-up where Rand began blubbering, “You’re treating me like a little Jewish girl!,” to which Mises replied, “Because that’s exactly what you are!!!!”

  26. Not quite. She excommunicated Branden because he began banging a former client of his psychology practice, and attempted to hide it. To Rand, Branden’s one-time lover, it was treasonable, and he wasn’t even allowed to attend her funeral.

    That is even wackier. Very authoritarian!

  27. Bill Pope- I must have missed something. Is there a connection between Rand’s hypocrisy (as perceived by you) in going to college in the Soviet Union and the validity of her ideas?

    Perhaps you are familiar with the ad hominem fallacy. There are plenty of reasons to slam Rand’s philosophy. (And I am a fan, but certainly not an objectivist) There is no need to resort to intellectually slothful, mendacious crap like you just spewed.

  28. Sorry for the impolite intrusion of reality into this forum.

    Take your “reality” and cause it to have an impolite intrusion into your self-righteous ass. Not only do you fail to make a valid argument about why we shouldn’t listen to Ayn Rand due to some form of hypocrisy on her part, you also insult everyone on the board by implying that only you understand “reality” and we are just fawning morons. Did this “Objectivist prof” molest you or something?

  29. Seriously, are there any major groups that still drive the Republican party today other than the religious right?

    The war-mongering wing of the Republican Party, though there is (oddly, I would think, but that’s what I get for thinking) probably a lot of overlap with the religious wing.

  30. dangerman,

    “DangerMan | October 15, 2007, 4:42pm | #
    once that fetus has a heartbeat, it ain’t your body any more. It belongs to another human, who also has absolute self ownership. It may be in your womb, but it is not your body.”

    So, A woman can control her own body by cutting the umbilical cord and evacuating her womb. If the kid dies – thats his business – he should have been able to care for himself. She’s not required to enable parasites, right? that would be like the welfare state, eh? (please note a touch of sarcasm here)

    wake-up dangerman. nothing about the issue is simple. thats why it is leaves intelligent, moral, well-intentioned people on opposite sides of the debate.

  31. Atlas these days reads almost like a Peak Oil survivalist fantasy. Rand apparently accepted a form of Malthusianism which held that we have too many philosophically undesirable people in the world. Just withdraw the energy supplies (Galt’s motor, Ellis Wyatt’s shale oil, Ken Dannager’s coal) that sustain them, and the resulting die off will restore Earth to its Objectivist carrying capacity.

  32. Whitaker Chambers’ quote only appears bizarre to people who haven’t read Atlas Shrugged, where Rand is positvely gleeful about the deaths of people she feels deserve to die for advocating political positions she didn’t ageee with, and to those who have read Atlas Schrugged but who experience cognitive dissonance when they try to reconcile Rand’s stance as a libertarian hero with her authoritarian tone, statements and actions.

  33. Chambers’s review, btw, is online. I wonder why Mr. Doherty couldn’t link to it?

    The quote, taken in the paragraph it appears in…

    Something of this implication is fixed in the book’s dictatorial tone, which is much its most striking feature. Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber – go!” The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too (in the total absence of any saving humor), in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture-that Dollar Sign, for example. At first, we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive. Soon we suspect something worse. We suspect that this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house. A tornado might feel this way, or Carrie Nation.

    Rand showed exactly how right Chambers was in many ways-the way she treated Branden, her defense of ethnic cleansing of native Americans…I could go on, but why bother? The Rand cult, and its fellow travelers, refuse to this day to talk about the very dark side she showed.

  34. “Well, once that fetus has a heartbeat, it ain’t your body any more. It belongs to another human, who also has absolute self ownership. It may be in your womb, but it is not your body.”

    Having a heartbeat makes you human? I thought it was sentience and consciousness.

    If only having the potential to be human counts, then you better stop masturbating or menstruating..

  35. I could go on, but why bother?

    And the famous quote about Arabs being savages who stole “our” oil (by putting it under their sand? Those thieves!).

  36. I do agree with her on that, though I still believe that altruism can be done through a purely selfish need

    Ah, but that is what Rand would have termed a “contradiction in terms” – the definition of altruism being selflessness.

  37. Here is where Rand would be turning in her grave: Say that you do believe in God, and God says you save yourself if you give of what you have to the less fortunate members of your community. So you give, not out of love or altruism, but because you believe that you’ll be saving yourself from Hell. That would be a purely selfish act, wouldn’t it? Altruism in this case is neither moral or immoral. You simply don’t care.

  38. In India, where abortion of female fetuses is common and accepted, infanticide of female babies is also common. How much of a difference is there between a baby that is ready to be born in a few days, and one that is a few minutes or hours old? I see no evidence that Ayn Rand really faced the issue.

    There is a certain ruthless, grisly consistency in finding both abortion and infanticide acceptable. But those who accept the former and find the latter absolutly horrifying? Well, I have difficulty understanding why you feel that way. Can someone please enlighten me?

  39. iih,

    For one thing, Rand would have said one is immoral for believing in God because it is an irrational belief or not based on reason (she says.) For another she would have said (and probably did) that if you give to the less fortunate or to anyone else out love that you are being very selfish rather than altruistic; she defined selfishness as concern with one’s own interests and values. If one loves another, that other becomes a value. In Rand’s philosophy love is a profoundly selfish act or emotion. She once said, “before one can say I love you one must first know how to say the I.

  40. But the fact is that Rand, for all her contributions to the idea of individualism, was a state-worshiper.

    Come again?

    You’re really going to have to justify this line. She had her faults, but state-worship was not one of them.

  41. For starters, she would denounce Ron Paul for not supporting the Iraq war.

    Uh, no, she would not have denounced Ron Paul for that. You apparently have not read her that closely. She denounced most of the wars the US was part of in the 20th century, as the end outcomes of senseless statism that could not be justified on moral grounds.

    Try again.

  42. Soon we suspect something worse. We suspect that this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house. A tornado might feel this way, or Carrie Nation.

    I suspect that Chambers never once in his entire life ever managed to get his rocks off any more strongly than that of a polite sneeze.

  43. Some people seem to be confusing the genocidal ramblings of the current leaders of the Ayn Rand Institute with what Ayn Rand actually wrote. Given the language Rand used in opposing the Vietnam War, there’s no way she would have supported the war on Iraq:

    “If you want to see the ultimate, suicidal extreme of altruism, on an international scale, observe the war in Vietnam — a war in which American soldiers are dying for no purpose whatever. This is the ugliest evil of the Vietnam War, that it does not serve any national interest of the United States — that it is a pure instance of blind, senseless, altruistic, self-sacrifical slaughter. This is the evil — not the revolting stuff the Vietniks are howling about.”

    “The Wreckage of the Consensus”, delivered as a lecture in April, 1967, reprinted in _Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal_, pg. 224 (paperback, 2nd ed. Nov. 1967).

  44. Sometimes I delight in the ramblings of the reflexive anti-Randians as they expose the fact that they’ve obviously never read — or understood — a single word she wrote. I say to myself “There’s my advantage! I try to understand and integrate this ‘Philosophy for Living Life on Earth’ and they don’t. Good for me.”

    Other times, it leaves me decidedly melancholy as it has today as I try to read it on the pages of ‘Reason.’

    Ayn Rand had a troubled personal life — no doubt about that. Too bad that hers was lived in full view of her detractors and that no one cares at all about theirs.

    But her contributions to philosophy, in particular Epistemology — REASON, and the connection between Reason and Liberty are original and true.

    Most of the people who ramble on and on here do so dependant upon a premise that she gave to us. They are, pardon me, too stupid to know.

    Bill Walsh

  45. Atlas these days reads almost like a Peak Oil survivalist fantasy. Rand apparently accepted a form of Malthusianism which held that we have too many philosophically undesirable people in the world. Just withdraw the energy supplies (Galt’s motor, Ellis Wyatt’s shale oil, Ken Dannager’s coal) that sustain them, and the resulting die off will restore Earth to its Objectivist carrying capacity.

    You weren’t paying attention.

    It wasn’t the withdrawl of the concrete innovations that Rand saw as the key action taken by the protagonists, it was the withdrawl of their sanction for the system. Rather than the laborers going on strike as was so common during those times, it was the owners and innovators.

    By choosing to no longer support the parasites that simultaneously could not survive without their effort and demanded ever more sacrifice, the goal wasn’t to passively strangle the Looters. The goal was to stand up and say, “No more” in a clear and unequivocal way.

    That the statists would likely end up eating their own and self-destructing was just a nice side-effect.

  46. I always hated Ayn Rand’s pretnetious fake name. Can’t we just call her by her real name, Alisa Rosenbaum, which is much nicer?

  47. The “Alisa Rosenbaum cult” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

    😉

  48. Funny–I read “Atlas Shurgged” more than 40 years when I was about 20–with great fascination. Today, my niece, 20 herself, has just read “Atlas Shrugged” with great fascination. And she is not alone. It continues to be read and admired on campuses everywhere. Surely this has and will continue to have a great and pervasive influence on the thinking of our young people.

  49. Green Mamba–your comment is ridiculous. Ayn Rand chose a fake name to protect her family that was still in the Soviet Union. She’s not the only Russian refugee who did this.

  50. I could go on, but why bother?

    And the famous quote about Arabs being savages who stole “our” oil (by putting it under their sand? Those thieves!).

    Well, to be fair…I find no evidence that Rand ever said anything of the sort. That quote actually came from Robert Tracinski of the ARI in 2002, when he said,

    “…blood for oil is the gruesome equation that has ruled the Middle East for the past five decades–our oil, stolen by the Saudis and used to spill our blood.”

    His reasoning for this extraordinary statement was:

    “The Saudis did not create their oil fields. The oil was discovered and drilled for by American, British and French oil companies. These firms were the rightful owners of the oil, and until the 1950s, their rights were mostly respected.”

    The article is linked here

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.