In recent months there has been a surge of interest in Ayn Rand’s works. Fifty-two years after its first publication, her novel Atlas Shrugged is once again topping best-seller lists. As businesses are “bailed out” and quasi-nationalized; as one regulation leads inexorably to the next; and as the productive and innocent are increasingly burdened with the sins and failures of the guilty — many people recognize the haunting resemblance to the world depicted in Atlas. Some now characterize Rand as a “prophet.” Others, as seen on placards at “tea parties” nationwide, simply observe: “Rand was Right.” But that she was right is, in some respects, less important than why she was right.
To appreciate this, imagine a scientist in the Middle Ages who makes bold yet uncannily accurate predictions about planetary motion. Whatever value these predictions offered in facilitating navigation and timekeeping, the deeper question would be: “what led to them?” Asking this might reveal the scientist’s revolutionary theories of heliocentrism and gravity. Not only would such a questioner enjoy an astounding intellectual experience, he’d also get an immensely rewarding payoff — since grasping these theories would open the world to him in a way that no narrow prediction of planetary motion could. So, too, for questioning and discovering the source of Rand’s predictive accuracy.
The key here is to realize that although she was well versed in both economics and politics, they were not her focus. Rather, Rand was a philosopher who scientifically developed a radically new philosophical system (which she named Objectivism). This is what enabled her to so accurately forecast today’s events. As she saw it, the vital purpose of philosophy is to equip us with the principles necessary to live successfully. Stated negatively, failing to identify and heed the objective requirements of life results in unsuccessful living. Indeed, the crumbling society in Atlas was a direct consequence of crucial and widespread philosophical errors. Rand’s masterful expose of these errors stemmed from her lifelong dedication to formulating and validating her own groundbreaking views. For ultimately, her concern was with the positive — with understanding and codifying how man should properly live.
Given her goal, Rand’s focus was on the individual and his place in the world. In studying these topics, she provided penetrating insight into the nature of reason and knowledge; of the virtues and principles necessary to live; and of the values — both spiritual and material — that men should strive for and achieve.
The culmination of her work was to present an entirely new moral code, one based on each man living as an end in himself, using reason to achieve his own success and happiness. It is this overarching system, including her conception of reason, justice, independence, the nature of production, etc., which informs her radically new views on politics.
Rand approached philosophy as a science. She held that the world is a natural, lawful place, which can be known if, and only if, we scrupulously follow logical thought processes — i.e., if we use reason. But for her, the role of reason didn’t end with discovering the causal relationships governing nature; it extended to answering the questions of what man should do (ethics) and how he knows it (epistemology). For instance, it extended to choosing appropriate moral values (purpose, self-esteem, etc.), and then discovering the principles necessary to obtain them (integrity, pride, etc.). This is the philosophic knowledge necessary to live successfully. For it to be valid, Rand argued, it must be gained in the same way that scientific knowledge is gained.
Even from this brief sketch we can see that there’s a real irony in describing Ayn Rand as “prophet.” Not only did she arrive at all her conclusions and predictions by a meticulous process of thought, she was also the world’s staunchest defender of reason — and deadliest opponent of mysticism.
So instead of fixating on Rand as “prophet,” let’s simply resolve to investigate her philosophy so that we too might understand the world in the fundamentally new and powerful way that she did.