The 2012 presidential campaign should go down as a referendum on the long conservative fascination with Ayn Rand, the controversial libertarian novelist and philosopher.
Mitt Romney, the Republican who failed to unseat President Barack Obama, is a former titan of private equity. He embodied Rand’s belief in the moral rectitude of free-market capitalism. A secretly videotaped speech Romney gave to a private fundraising audience – in which he asserted that 47 percent of Americans were “dependent upon government” – was an excellent distillation of this world view.
Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has built his political philosophy on Rand’s work. For years he gave away copies of her novels as Christmas presents and made them required reading for his staffers. His belief that the United States is increasingly divided between “makers” and “takers” informs his policy positions on everything from Medicaid to food stamps. It’s worth remembering how her work came to occupy such a vaunted position in modern Republican thought.
In her 1957 novel, “Atlas Shrugged,” Rand advanced a clear distinction between virtuous “producers” and unethical “looters” and “moochers.” In the novel, the moochers have become so powerful that the producers are no longer willing to work on their behalf. Facing oppressive regulation and taxation, the producers go “on strike,” retreating to a secret hideaway in Colorado. Without them, society begins to collapse.
As an alternative to this dark future, Rand proposed objectivism, her own philosophy of limited government, rationality and ethical selfishness. Only absolute laissez-faire capitalism, she argued, would give producers the freedom to work to their full potential. Only thus could individuals lead lives of independence and integrity, even if they contributed nothing to the common good.
Rand expected her contemporaries to greet “Atlas Shrugged” as a major intellectual contribution. But critics hated the novel, calling it unreadable and worse. The most vicious attack came from the conservative thinker Whittaker Chambers, writing in National Review. Chambers grasped immediately that Rand was an atheist. Indeed, Rand was profoundly irreligious, calling religion “a psychological disorder.”
Despite this criticism, “Atlas Shrugged” became a sleeper hit among generations of young conservatives and libertarians. In the 1960s, she was a popular speaker on college campuses and a favorite of the mass media, sitting for a famous Playboy interview and appearing three times on Johnny Carson’s show.
Rand remained at odds with mainstream conservatism. She denounced Ronald Reagan for mixing religion and politics and especially for his views on abortion. She criticized the Vietnam War and suggested that the government had no right to regulate drug use.
Ryan now emphasizes Rand’s identification of individualism versus collectivism as a defining moral issue, arguing that this basic distinction lies at the heart of all political problems. As a Catholic, Ryan is far from Rand on social issues.
“Atlas Shrugged” depicted politicians as among the worst moochers of them all, followed closely by their business allies.
Rand’s division of Americans into moochers and producers, dependents and independents, is no longer controversial – it reflects conventional wisdom in the Republican Party. This campaign may well determine if that philosophy can withstand the scrutiny of American voters. •
Jennifer Burns is an assistant professor of history at Stanford University. Distributed by Bloomberg View.