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Ed Driscoll

In The Mail: Ayn Rand: “Goddess Of The Market”

October 23rd, 2009 - 4:23 pm

In the mail the other day was a review copy of Jen­nifer Burns’ new book, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. As Ilya Somin writes at The Volokh Conspiracy, quoting Mil­ton Friedman,  Rand is “An Utterly Intolerant and Dogmatic Person Who Did a Great Deal of Good”:

Ayn-Rand-As-Che-10-3-09I was very inter­ested to read his­to­rian Jen­nifer Burns’ impor­tant new biog­ra­phy of Ayn Rand in part because Rand and I have a great deal in com­mon. We are both Russ­ian Jews from St. Peters­burg, both athe­ists, and — most impor­tant — both of us became lib­er­tar­i­ans in large part because of our expe­ri­ence with com­mu­nism. Burns inter­est­ingly describes how Rand’s oppo­si­tion to com­mu­nism was influ­enced by the repres­sion suf­fered by her par­ents after the Bol­she­viks came to power in 1917 (for exam­ple, her father’s home and busi­ness were con­fis­cated, and the fam­ily was dis­crim­i­nated against because of their “bour­geois” back­ground). My great-grandfather (who was much poorer than Rand’s father), also had his small busi­ness con­fis­cated in 1918, and this was one of a series of inci­dents that influ­enced my pater­nal grandfather’s own life­long oppo­si­tion to com­mu­nism. He and Rand were almost exact con­tem­po­raries, born one year apart.

Despite all of the above, I was never much influ­enced by Rand or impressed by her writ­ings. I became a lib­er­tar­ian in high school pri­mar­ily as a result of read­ing Fried­man, Hayek, Noz­ick, and Thomas Sow­ell — and because being a refugee from com­mu­nism pre­vented me from becom­ing a left-liberal, as would oth­er­wise have been likely. I also read some of Rand’s books at that time. But I wasn’t impressed with her effort to defend free mar­kets based on her the­ory of the “virtue of self­ish­ness,” or her “Objec­tivist” phi­los­o­phy. Many of her ideas seemed poorly devel­oped or super­fi­cial. I was also turned off by her intol­er­ance for dis­agree­ment and her lack of seri­ous effort to engage with oppos­ing points of view.

I still think these crit­i­cisms of Rand are largely accu­rate. There was, how­ever, one impor­tant point that I under­rated: Ayn Rand was the great­est pop­u­lar­izer of lib­er­tar­ian ideas of the last 100 years. Many more peo­ple have read Rand’s books than have read all the works of Fried­man, Hayek, Mises, Noz­ick, and all the other mod­ern lib­er­tar­ian thinkers com­bined. In becom­ing a lib­er­tar­ian with­out any influ­ence from Rand, I was actu­ally unusual. Over the last 15 years, I have met a large num­ber of lib­er­tar­ian intel­lec­tu­als and activists of the last two gen­er­a­tions, includ­ing some of the most famous. More often than not, read­ing Rand influ­enced their con­ver­sion to lib­er­tar­i­an­ism, even though very few fully endorse her the­o­ries or con­sider them­selves Objec­tivists. Burns quotes Mil­ton Friedman’s per­cep­tive assess­ment of Rand as “an utterly intol­er­ant and dog­matic per­son who did a great deal of good.” I think he was prob­a­bly right.

Being remem­bered pri­mar­ily as a great pop­u­lar­izer would have angered Rand. As Burns’ biog­ra­phy makes clear, Rand saw her­self as a path­break­ing orig­i­nal thinker who had dis­cov­ered impor­tant philo­soph­i­cal and polit­i­cal truths that had pre­vi­ous been ignored or at least under­em­pha­sized. Rand believed that her the­ory of Objec­tivism was the only pos­si­ble moral ground­ing for a free soci­ety. Burns doc­u­ments her con­tempt for schol­ars like Hayek, Fried­man, and Mur­ray Roth­bard, who tried to defend lib­er­tar­ian ideas on other grounds. For exam­ple, she called Hayek’s work “pure poi­son” and con­sid­ered him “an exam­ple of our most per­ni­cious enemy.” Indeed, the very word “lib­er­tar­ian” was anath­ema to her, and she viewed most non-Objectivist lib­er­tar­i­ans as ide­o­log­i­cal ene­mies. Rand also believed that one could not be a true sup­porter of free mar­kets and lim­ited gov­ern­ment with­out also endors­ing Objec­tivist views on a wide vari­ety of non-political sub­jects, such as her athe­ism, her “Roman­tic” views on art and lit­er­a­ture, and what she con­sid­ered to be her ratio­nal­is­tic the­o­ries of love and romance. Over the years, she cut her­self off from nearly all of her friends and admir­ers, often because they had expressed dis­agree­ment with some rel­a­tively minor part of her views.

Burns also exten­sively doc­u­ments Rand’s many con­flicts with social con­ser­v­a­tives, espe­cially William F. Buck­ley and other writ­ers at National Review. The National Review con­ser­v­a­tives par­tic­u­larly objected to her athe­ism. Rand was just as obnox­ious to her con­ser­v­a­tive crit­ics as she was to rival lib­er­tar­ian thinkers. And the con­ser­v­a­tives often gave as good as they got. For exam­ple, Whit­taker Cham­bers’ 1957 review of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in the National Review ridicu­lously com­pared Rand to the Nazis and com­mu­nists, claim­ing that the true mes­sage of the book was “To a gas cham­ber — go!” Rand’s claim that athe­ism and sup­port for free­dom are insep­a­ra­ble was likely wrong. On the other hand, she was more insight­ful than the National Review con­ser­v­a­tives on a great many other issues; for exam­ple, her oppo­si­tion to Jim Crow, and her 1963 denun­ci­a­tion of racism as “the low­est, most crudely prim­i­tive form of col­lec­tivism” hold up bet­ter than this noto­ri­ous 1957 National Review edi­to­r­ial argu­ing that the “white com­mu­nity” of the south­ern states were jus­ti­fied in deny­ing the vote to blacks “because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”

One of the strengths of Burns’ book is that she — unlike some other lib­eral schol­ars — has an excel­lent under­stand­ing of the issues that divided lib­er­tar­i­ans and con­ser­v­a­tives, and also of the dis­tinc­tions between dif­fer­ent types of lib­er­tar­i­an­ism. As a result, she is able to sit­u­ate Rand effec­tively in the con­text of these related move­ments. Though the book is sub­ti­tled “Ayn Rand and the Amer­i­can Right,” much of it chron­i­cles major con­flicts between Rand, her sup­port­ers, and rival lib­er­tar­ian or con­ser­v­a­tive groups. Burns effec­tively shows that many other lib­er­tar­ian and con­ser­v­a­tive thinkers dis­agreed with Rand, or even hated her (as she often despised them). But they nonethe­less ben­e­fited from her abil­ity to attract an enor­mous new audi­ence to lib­er­tar­ian and pro-market ideas.

One enormous advantage Buckley and others at NRO had is that they weren’t trying to present conservatism as an entirely new philosophy, but one based on traditional American principals increasingly abandoned by a left that was — and of course very still is — always “progressing” further leftward. By marketing herself as the sole creator and final arbiter of all things Objectivist, Rand put enormous pressure on herself. Ultimately, arguably with either the postpartum depression after releasing Atlas, or the breakup of her affair with Nathaniel Branden (whom Burns curiously refers to throughout the book as “Nathan”, his original first name),  it cost her enormously. But in the interim, she was a valuable counterforce to the collectivism of the 20th century.

Speaking of which, as for Mil­ton Friedman’s description of Rand as “an utterly intol­er­ant and dog­matic per­son who did a great deal of good”, it’s worth looking back at something Orrin Jude wrote back in early 2001 about her, echoing Flannery O’Connor’s famous aphorism that “You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you”:

In considering the philosophy of Ayn Rand, it is always important to keep in mind the prevailing intellectual climate against which she was forced to push.  Though her absolutist vision of individualism may appear overly harsh and dogmatic to us now, it may well have been a necessary counterweight to the general acceptance of statism in the West in the wake of the Great Depression.  At a time when European nations succumbed, disastrously, to the various allures of fascism, communism, and socialism, and even the United States experimented with the big government programs of the New Deal and Great Society, maybe her rigid espousal of freedom was a required response.  As another icon of the era proclaimed :

I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

The very extremity of their views made figures like Ayn Rand and Barry Goldwater easy objects of fun, but also inspired several generations of conservative/libertarian activists (most famously Alan Greenspan in Rand’s case), who eventually saw these views vindicated with our victory in the Cold War and the return to smaller government and aggressive free market capitalism.

Well, at least for a time — these days, “Mr. Galt’s corner office is now available.”

(Ayn as Ché! image originally created for this post.)

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