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”:
I 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.)