Book Reviews - Winter 2010

Laissez-Faire Run Amok

The extremist, and enduring, philosophy of Ayn Rand

By Ethan Fishman | December 1, 2009


Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Rightby Jennifer Burns, Oxford University Press, 369 pp., $27.95

Ayn Rand and the World She Madeby Anne C. Heller, Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, 571 pp., $35

At town-hall meetings, during marches on Washington, D.C., and on media outlets throughout the country, a public furor has been created. Some of those involved have been accusing Barack Obama of being a Communist or a Nazi or both for attempting to ensure that all Americans have access to quality health care. During the New Deal, similar charges were leveled at Franklin Roosevelt by radical right-wing members of the American conservative movement, including the novelist Ayn Rand. Among the signs carried by demonstrators at the recent rallies are some reading “Who is John Galt?” John Galt is, it happens, the protagonist of Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged.

As historian Jennifer Burns and journalist Anne C. Heller explain in their new studies of her life and thought, Rand remains a significant spokeswoman for the radical right in the United States. Her novels, notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, still sell hundreds of thousands of copies annually. Her ideas outlived her in the economic policies of Alan Green­span, the philosophic treatises of Robert Nozick and John Hospers, the presidential candidacies of Ron Paul and Bob Barr, and the proceedings of the Cato Institute. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck frequently cite her as an authoritative source for their views.

Rand, who died in 1982, invented a philosophy she called Objectivism that glorifies the autonomous individual who denies that he is his brother’s keeper and rejects the traditional Western moral responsibility to love his neighbor as himself. The principal characters in her novels, architect Howard Roark and engineer Galt, are portrayed as romantic heroes fighting for the right to exist exclusively on their own terms. They are true solipsists who refuse to alter their beliefs, who consider compromise the epitome of evil. “Independence of man from men is the Life Principle. Dependence of man upon man is the Death principle,” Rand wrote. “I am a man who does not exist for others,” Roark proudly proclaims in the climax of The Fountainhead.

Human beings may voluntarily choose to come to the aid of their neighbors, Rand said, but they must never be forced to do so. Moreover, they should not help others when it would be to their detriment. When societal, political, and religious pressures to act charitably are placed on talented, successful, productive people, they are discouraged from developing their talents. A premium is placed on mediocrity and failure, and on parasitic behavior, she maintained. In Rand’s Objectivism, self-interest is the primary human motivating factor. The world she envisioned is a “battleground between competence and incompetence” where sympathy for the poor and weak is subsumed by egoism, ambition, and greed.

Rand’s defense of uncompromising individualism led her to an appreciation of extreme laissez-faire capitalism. The quality and fair pricing of goods can only be achieved by market forces completely unregulated by government, she believed. What about the effect of monopolies on prices? Monopolies come into existence when government protection of certain businesses makes it difficult for other firms to compete with them, she countered. Antitrust laws thus made no sense to Rand because she believed monopolies are caused by governments, not by capitalist entrepreneurs.

Consistent with her dismissal of individual charity and her espousal of laissez-faire economics, Rand also opposed government-administered welfare programs. Having grown up in the Soviet Union, she witnessed the confiscation of her family’s home and business in the name of the common good. After immigrating to the United States, Rand vowed to resist the New Deal. She equated it with Soviet collectivism and blamed it for prolonging the Depression. For her, fdr’s geniality masked his intention to become an American dictator. His reforms would, she predicted, produce “a Totalitarian America, a world of slavery, of starvation, of concentration camps, and of firing squads.”

Burns’s use of newly released material from the Ayn Rand Archives allows her to develop Rand’s thought more completely. Heller’s greater reliance on interviews with Rand’s friends and followers leads to a more complete retelling of her personal story. Taken together, the authors both enrich the available secondary literature on Rand and locate in her thought an influential antecedent to the barrage of vitriol directed at the Obama administration by self-described mainstream Americans.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution  Burns and Heller make is their ability to explain the continuing source of Rand’s appeal. She tells those people who have no intention of sharing with others the wealth, power, and status they have achieved (or hope to achieve) exactly what they want to hear. The absolute certainty with which Rand makes her points also provides hope and support to those seeking simplistic solutions to the complex problems afflicting them.

Burns and Heller also offer insight into Rand’s originality. The glorification of selfishness is by no means a new concept in Western thought. Similar views were articulated by the proponent of realpolitik Niccolò Machiavelli and the social Darwinist Her­bert Spencer. But Machiavelli and Spencer celebrated selfishness for political and biological reasons, not moral ones. Machiavelli advised rulers to appear altruistic if it would help maintain their political power. According to Burns and Heller, Rand’s unique contribution is the radical assertion that selfishness serves as a superior alternative to altruism as the basis for a nation’s moral code. Her substitute ethic denies even the appearance of altruism and prescribes utter disregard for the needs and feelings of her fellows.

Moreover, Burns and Heller correctly underscore the debt Rand owed to Friedrich Nietzsche. Late in her life, Rand claimed that Nietzsche’s thought was too mystical and not rational enough for her tastes. Nevertheless, the striking resemblance of her protagonists, Roark and Galt, to Nietzsche’s Uebermenschen (or supermen) cannot be denied. They are stern nonconformists who seek to effect a “transvaluation” of Western ethics that replaces compassion and kindness with hardness and cruelty. Rand also shares with Nietzsche a dauntless will to power that would replace God with Uebermenschen such as Nietzsche and Rand themselves. “It is not I who will die,” Rand opined, “it is the world that will end.”

Burns’s and Heller’s volumes do have some significant limitations, however. First, they appear to take at face value Rand’s insistence, despite her criticism of traditional ethics, that many of her ideas came directly from Aristotle. She seemed to need to legitimize her thought by identifying him as one of its sources. Yet at the heart of Aristotle’s philosophy is the assumption that human beings are political and social animals who have no choice but to live together and who are required by universal natural laws to treat each other with dignity and respect. To Aristotle, it is precisely these moral obligations that separate humans from beasts and human conduct from the law of the jungle.

Aristotle was an early defender of the individual right to own private property. The ownership of property, he wrote, helps people develop their distinct personalities. Unlike Rand, however, Aristotle’s theory of natural law placed explicit limitations on the way we use our property. Nor is Aristotle’s concept of phronesis, or prudence, consistent with Rand’s ideas. Aristotelian prudence, a sort of compromise between eternal principles of natural law and changing historical circumstances, impugns the role of ideology in politics. Since Rand was the prototypical ideologue—offering rigid laissez-faire solutions to every problem regardless of the circumstances, opposing restraints on individual rights, and ridiculing compromise—her connection to Aristotle could not have been more than tangential.

A second limitation is the lack of attention Burns and Heller pay to the ancient Hebrew ethic of reciprocity that offers a realistic alternative to the attempt by both Nietzsche and Rand to dichotomize egoism and selfishness. Rabbi Hillel, one of the most influential figures in Jewish history, famously said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” The so-called new morality of Nietzsche and Rand demands that we make a stark choice between serving ourselves and serving others. But this is a false dichotomy. Hillel’s lesson is that striving to strike a balance between these two impulses can prove beneficial to all sides in a relationship.

Finally, Burns and Heller, while often citing Rand’s extremism, fail to give it a satisfactory philosophical explanation. Only by carefully examining Objectivism in the context of the wide array of conservative movements in the United States can one truly appreciate that it is laissez faire run amok. It recognizes no boundaries on individualism, has no dependence on universal principles, no basis in natural law. Those who profess it are not, as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck might have you believe, mainstream Americans, but members of a radical fringe.

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