Libertarian History/Philosophy

The Value of Ayn Rand to the Freedom Movement

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Katherine Mangu-Ward writes below of today's Wall Street Journal article questioning the value of Rand to the free-market movement. The piece quotes and cites me and my book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.

When the reporter, Heather Wilhelm, interviewed me for the piece, I had a great deal to say about her thesis, most of which I couldn't really reproduce any longer, but here are some scattered thoughts.

I say, not entirely humbly, that to understand the full story of exactly how important Ayn Rand was and is to the libertarian movement as it exists today, you really should read the 40,000 or so words on the topic contained in my book, noted above, which makes an amazingly appropriate Christmas present:

*A difficult and often obscure ideology's adherents should think a few times at least before condemning or denying an immensely popular novelist who is collecting hundreds of thousands of new readers 52 years after the publication of her last novel.

*Obviously, many libertarians don't agree with everything Rand said (neither do I), or find her tone always congenial, or find aspects of her personality or her fans salubrious.  This is all somewhat interesting as a matter of intellectual history. Why it is something that lots of libertarians feel a need to speak out about so frequently, and on many occasions so saltily, sometimes confuses me (I know, a reporter from the Wall Street Journal called and asked; that's decent reason enough I suppose.) And one's personal distaste or disagreement with Rand absolutely pales in importance, if the spread of libertarian thinking is your concern, with Rand's value.

It is one thing to say, as the complaints of many libertarian anti-Randians amount to, that her particular style or arguments wouldn't be convincing to my mind at this point in my intellectual development (or that I imagine a world of others to which it wouldn't either); another thing to say that she doesn't turn lots of people to libertarian thinking.

*Despite what Fr. Sirico is quoted as saying by Wilhelm, clearly Rand both offends and converts. It is my belief that she offends for the most part only the ones who could not be converted--that is, people whose core moral and intellectual values would make them enemies of economic liberty whether or not they ever came across the scabrous invective of Ayn Rand or were ever forced to wonder how much Ellsworth Toohey they might have in them. In which case, her offending them is no net loss for the cause of libertarian conversion.

*Rand's very colorful aspects that make magazines like GQ dedicate thousands of words (why, a veritable "cacophony of rage and dread," as Wilhelm quotes the New Republic saying of Rand's fans) even today to pissing on her grave guarantee that at least some of those readers, intrigued by how a dead and supposedly terrible novelist could so captivate and infuriate journalists and editors today, how she could elicit such interesting thoughts from such interesting characters as Michael Malice or Nick Gillespie, will read her. Some will be offended, and some will be converted. (Most will just be either entertained or bored.)

*Brink Lindsey is right noting in Wilhelm's article that it's a good thing to have people out there in the intellectual fight stressing what he calls his "bleeding heart libertarianism." In all my admiration for Rand I would never recommend that everyone in the world of libertarian persuasion ought to emulate her. The libertarian movement's richness and success are not due to any one thinker's rhetoric, ideas, or approach. Clearly different styles and emphases are needed for a full-service intellectual movement devoted to social and political change.

Having said that…I will now say this: That Ayn Rand was who she was, and did what she did, was a good thing for the spread of libertarian ideas; that's a very hard thing to deny, however little you admire her yourself. (I recall, though I was unable to verify it for sure this afternoon, that Brink Lindsey's own intellectual career had an early phase writing for Objectivist publications. I'll correct this point if I'm mistaken in my memory.)

Katherine Mangu-Ward closed with a quote from Rand's former right-hand man Nathaniel Branden, about the interesting (but not, I think, terribly relevant to the long-dead novelist's appeal today and in the future) benefits of distance from Rand the human.

I have a favorite Nathaniel Branden quote I like to drag out everytime I'm in the middle of the Ayn Rand war zone, which can be found on page 542 of my book. Branden was noting that Rand's detractors rarely deign "publicly to name the essential ideas of Atlas Shrugged and to attempt to refute them. No one has been willing to declare: 'Ayn Rand holds that man must choose his values and actions exclusively by reason, that man has the right to exist for his own sake, that no one has the right to seek values from others by physical force--and I consider such ideas wrong, evil and socially dangerous."