The cult of Ayn Rand has never been stronger on the American Right. Rand’s influence on groups such as the Tea Party and politicians like Rand Paul — who is, after all, named after her — is intense, and clearly growing in popularity. Indeed, the Tea Party began with a pundit who called himself “basically an Ayn Rander.” For many on the Right, Rand has become something approaching a messiah, or at least a patron saint. American conservatives, looking for a way up from the defeats of the Obama era, appear ready to embrace this trend. This is, needless to say, an extremely bad idea.
First, it is politically suicidal. The U.S. is mired in an economic crisis that has been brewing for some time, and shows few signs of disappearing. And this crisis was caused, to a great extent, by Randian economics. Eschewing traditional fiscal conservatism, the American Right embraced for the better part of three decades a messianic form of capitalism that demonized the state and society, while fostering an idolatry of the individual entrepreneur, the corporate CEO, and the unabashed pursuit of money as the highest moral good.
That this has had horrendous consequences cannot be denied. If money is the highest moral good, then making money — by whatever means — overrides all other concerns, even legality, prudence, and common sense. The result has been massive economic inequality, recklessness on the part of the private sector that brought it close to self-destruction, the gutting of public assets, and the negation of even the idea of a collective good.
This is much in contrast to traditional conservatism, which acknowledged the self-evident fact that society is a collective endeavor, and the interests of the individual must be balanced against those of the collective. It also acknowledged — indeed, insisted — that a society can reach a consensus on what constitutes the good, and pursue it on a collective level to the benefit of all. Indeed, Edmund Burke based his entire critique of the French Revolution on the idea that the good can only be achieved by particular communities with specific values, and not through universalist individualism. Rand, in contrast, regarded society as fundamentally evil and the mortal enemy of the individual; a point of view that can, in fact must, lead to a state of anarchy and social collapse that benefits no one and destroys precisely what traditional conservatism seeks to preserve.
The majority of the American people appear to have reached the same conclusion. They have twice voted for a president who rejects Rand’s ideas entirely, and polls indicate that an overwhelming number of them want policies like higher taxes on the rich that are anathema to Rand’s ideology.
Many Americans, moreover, are suffering under current economic conditions, and when people are suffering they will turn to anyone who promises to help alleviate that suffering. Rand demonized such people as “moochers” and parasites. It is very unlikely that Americans will vote for people who hate them. “Do not,” as the ancient proverb goes, “stand in the way of a hungry man.” To run on Randian principles may be popular with many on the Right, but on a national scale it can only lead to greater marginalization and defeat.
Second, Rand’s ideology is morally reprehensible. Rand proclaimed such things as compassion, generosity, charity, and empathy as evil and enemies of humanity. That this is monstrous should be readily apparent. Such sentiments are basic aspects of human nature and human relationships. To deny them makes us essentially inhuman. To vitiate them completely results in a condition in which power is the sole arbiter of justice and good. The ideologies of the 20th century that embraced such ideas have been among the ugliest. Indeed, they are the fundamental principles of totalitarianism. As conservative icon Whittaker Chambers pointed out, at the heart of Rand’s ideology is a voice screaming “to the gas chambers – go!” Ultimately, Rand’s ideas were based on a demonization of empathy; and in a post-modern world in which all gods are dead and people increasingly alienated from each other by social, economic, and technological forces, we are desperately in need of empathy. Without it, we will find ourselves in a world where, as French novelist Michel Houellebecq puts it, “it is simply impossible to live.”
Last, and contrary to her own claims, Rand was an enemy of intelligence and rational thought. She fancied herself a philosopher, but was at best a polemicist. Her understanding of philosophy and its history was amateurish at best. She demonized essential thinkers like Emmanuel Kant without addressing their ideas in any but the shallowest way. This disparaging attitude causes Rand’s acolytes to close themselves off in a tautological ideology that begins with Rand and ends with Rand.
To go down the Randian path, then, might be edifying for some on the Right, but would also be politically and intellectually disastrous. The American Right currently faces a situation fundamentally different from that which raised it to the commanding heights of American politics. If it cannot adapt to it, it will be either completely marginalized or eventually transformed into something unrecognizable.
This would bad not only for the Right but also for America. More than ever, the United States needs traditional conservatism — the conservatism of fiscal and social prudence that regards change and reform as not necessarily evil but not necessarily good, and views progress with reasoned skepticism. Its revival is the Right’s only path back to power. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely the Right will take this path, or it will take it only after a brutal civil war within the movement. One hopes that cooler and more conservative heads will eventually prevail.
Coming next Thursday, April 4 at PJ Lifestyle from Sunny: The Top 5 Misconceptions About Objectivists