President Obama is asked perhaps the most important question he could ever be asked by Rolling Stone: what does he think of Ayn Rand? After saying that "sure" he's read her, his answer:
Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we'd pick up. Then, as we get older, we realize that a world in which we're only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else, in which we're considering the entire project of developing ourselves as more important than our relationships to other people and making sure that everybody else has opportunity – that that's a pretty narrow vision. It's not one that, I think, describes what's best in America. Unfortunately, it does seem as if sometimes that vision of a "you're on your own" society has consumed a big chunk of the Republican Party…
Reducing Rand's message of liberty and achievement to one of a narrow "you're on your own" individualism shouldn't be a surprise coming from the president, though it's still sad that the leader of the nation that attracted Rand to escape the Soviet Union at some risk would say such a thing.
There is nothing "narrow" about Rand's vision except in that it created moral boundaries in which most of the functions of Obama's government would be seen as illegitimate, because they use threats and violence against non-aggressors to achieve social goals. As Rand summed up her own philosophy once, it really amounts to: "Gentlemen, leave your guns outside!"
That alas is something Barack "drones away" Obama will never do.
Nathaniel Branden, Rand's ideological lieutenant in the 1960s, sums up well the problem with most people trying to blithely critique Rand as Obama does. It can be found quoted on page 542 of my book Radicals for Capitalism, which contains the story of Rand's life and achievements.
Branden noted 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."
My own 2005 take on what Rand actually stands for for her fans, "Yours is the Glory." Some key parts that Obama elides:
Despite common misunderstanding based on her use of the phrase "the virtue of selfishness" (used intentionally to shock), Rand's vision was by no means purely selfish in the sense that she wanted only herself to be happy. She was motivated by love and admiration for what she saw as best in humanity and her desire for a world that encouraged and rewarded that greatness…
Rand's critics who hear only hate and heartlessness in her are themselves tone-deaf to peals of glory. As Barbara Branden wrote, "In Ayn's presence, and in her work, one felt that command: a command to function at one's best, to be the most that one could be, to drive oneself constantly harder, never to disappoint one's highest ideals." As Rand herself put it, the "essence of life is the achievement of joy, not the escape from pain." ….
That is the positive side to what is sometimes seen as libertarianism's purely negative vision of restricting the state. It is a valuable addition to the libertarian movement's "sense of life." The heart of Rand's appeal is not contempt but her passionate belief in the possibility of individual glory and greatness, and her burning admiration for it….
….her books will doubtless stay in print and continue to capture and thrill future generations—and, through her romantic evocations of heroic individuals, continue to lead a certain observant, thoughtful percentage of readers to really see, and really feel, how personal liberty and limited government are necessary for such heroic striving to reach its zenith.
Reason TV on Ayn Rand: