The Legacy And Abuse Of Ayn Rand

Paul Ryan told an audience in 2005 that “the reason I got into public service” was the novelist Ayn Rand.

That makes no sense at all.

Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential candidate may be fond of Rand but Rand would not have been fond of him. She hated the idea of “public service”.

No, her ideal pursuits were industry and science and art. By Rand’s death in 1982, she had elaborated this view over two best-selling novels (Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead) and numerous essays and treatises.

Rand admired people who produced things; people who created value. The people opposed to producers are “looters” and “moochers”. They take that value and redistribute it to rent-seeking businesses and the welfare state. They are at home with the government and the tax system; they live in a world of subsidies and congressional hearings … and bailouts.

Paul Ryan supported the bank and automotive bailouts, among the most obscene examples of looting in American history. He now says he regrets those votes, and claims to oppose “corporate welfare” passionately.

His remorse would have done little for Rand. There was nothing she disliked more than inconsistency in the name of politics.

Bailouts and inconsistency are not the only differences between the novelist and the candidate. Ryan claimed his budget plan was based on his Catholic faith. Rand despised religion. Ryan is a fan of Ronald Reagan. Rand thought the Gipper was “trying to take us back to the Middle Ages”.

The war on drugs, civil liberties, abortion, take your pick: Rand and Ryan part more often than they converge. She described the modern conservative movement as the “God-family-country swamp”.
So it’s hard to understand the hyperventilating that has greeted the announcement that Ryan will join Romney on the presidential ticket. In the New Yorker, Jane Meyer suggested that by picking such a dedicated Ayn Rand fan, Romney had “added at least the imprint of an extra woman”.

MSNBC host Chris Matthews went further – Ryan actually “is Ayn Rand”, and he wants to “screw” the poor. One Huffington Post writer described him as a Rand “devotee”. Social media, of course, went bananas.

Ryan is a common type. He apparently insists interns read Atlas Shrugged when they join his staff. Politicians like to think they are in the business of ideas, but that’s nonsense. Politics is the business of power. Ideas are an optional extra, more useful for appealing to already committed supporters than formulating policy.

All those horrified progressives trying to draw a direct line from Rand to Ryan are playing his game, suggesting this senior politician is driven by ornate principle rather than base politics.

Ayn Rand’s books are abused in this way more than most. Her novels may not be great literary works, but are rich and readable (something you could not say about Friedrich Hayek’s dense prose, for instance). More than any other iconic free market writer, she creates a world with its own specific – that is, strict – moral code. And moral codes developed through fiction are seductive in a way that economic treatises are not.

We are so used to popular culture praising public service that the story of a heroic industrialist is highly subversive. If progressive thinkers want to hunt down the source of Rand’s peculiar appeal, it will be found there – radicalism is always appealing. Right now there are few more truly radical notions than private success as noble, or of capitalism as admirable.

Rand has a reputation. But she did not believe virtue was a reflection of wealth. She was careful to draw portraits not only of industrialists but of workers and artisans. One small passage in Atlas Shrugged is more suggestive of Rand’s world view than any of her later claims about altruism and Aristotle: she describes a train engineer as having “the ease of an expert, so confident that it seemed casual, but [his] was the ease of a tremendous concentration, the concentration on one’s task that has the ruthlessness of an absolute”.

Simply put, her novels are about human excellence, small and large. The plot of The Fountainhead pivots on an architect refusing to compromise his unique artistic vision. You can imagine the appeal. And, of course, opposed to such achievement are the predatory looters with powers to tax and regulate it all away.

Does it all seem a bit cartoonish? Surely no more cartoonish than those stories about evil industrialists and heartless capitalists defeated by noble truth seekers and crusaders for the underclass. Rand was working in a popular fiction genre full of heavy-handed socialist tracts like Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists or the novels of Upton Sinclair.

The difference is that most of those socialist works have been forgotten and Rand’s writing endures. The themes of Tressell and Sinclair have collapsed into cliché. Rand’s remain subversive.
Rand’s books have not penetrated Australia as they did the United States. She is not part of our national consciousness. Yes, she has her fans. Malcolm Fraser was one. But as John Singleton wrote, “Malcolm Fraser admires Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand admires Malcolm Fraser. All this shows is that neither knows what the other is talking about.”

Rand was part of a distinctly American tradition. The libertarian writer Charles Murray rightly notes Rand’s idea of freedom is particularly Jeffersonian. In her lifetime, she was supported by the anti-Roosevelt, anti-New Deal movement that died out with Robert Taft’s loss to Dwight D Eisenhower for the Republican presidential nomination in 1952. That movement was reprised, in a very different form, by the presidential run a decade later by Barry Goldwater – one of the few politicians Rand liked.

Australia has none of that rich history. Our free market tradition owes more to nineteenth century British liberalism than the American Old Right. Rand is an import. When Singleton helped form the libertarian Workers Party in Australia in the 1970s, he admitted he’d given up on Atlas Shrugged 80 pages in.

There’s a reason one of the great histories of the American libertarian movement was titled It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand. But it rarely ends there.