R.I.P.: AYN RAND
Ayn Rand was a third-rate novelist pretending to be a first-rate philosopher. She wrote Harlequin Romances for intellectually pretentious adolescent boys. I know. I was one of those boys.
By the time I was 17, I had read all of Rand's major works: The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, We the Living
, and Anthem
. I was put on to them by Eleanor Amidon, a bright, rebellious high school classmate on whom I had a powerful crush. (To this day, Eleanor is the only female I know who read and liked the works of Ayn Rand. I'm sure there are others; I just haven't met them.) I enjoyed Rand's books. They were simple and a little sexy, with just enough harebrained economics and philosophy thrown in to make me think I wasn't wasting my time. The Fountainhead
and Atlas Shrugged
were also very long (the latter over 1,000 pages), which made them seem both literally and intellectually weighty.
But even at the age of 17, I knew that Rand was a philosophical charlatan. More on that in a minute.
Rand was born in 1905 and died in 1982. So why am I bothering to write about a mediocre writer who died 22 years ago? Because in the last two weeks, I have received three emails from readers of my column who cite Ayn Rand as either their "very favorite" writer or as a huge influence on their political philosophy. Each of these readers is male and a generation younger than me. (I'm 58.) Each of them is intelligent, thoughtful, and literate. Each of them claims to be some flavor of "libertarian." Beyond that, Rand still wields influence in high places. Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve and arguably the one man in America who can influence the nation's economy with a single speech, was once a member of Rand's inner circle. The economist Milton Friedman was a disciple of Rand's. The libertarian Cato Institute was founded largely on Ayn Rand's principles. The entire neoconservative movement owes some debt to Rand. George W. Bush will never read Ayn Rand--he's not a reader or a thinker, even at that low level--but he is nevertheless a product of her thinking, without his even knowing it.
Given all that, it is appropriate to put Ayn Rand in her place. That is, back in the grave.
Let us consider Ayn Rand's view of the world, as reflected in her novels. She believed that money was the measure of a man (and a woman, though she clearly preferred male heroes). In Ayn Rand's world, all handsome, strong, brilliant people are rich, and all rich people are handsome, strong, and brilliant. In her world, Bill Gates would look like a young Gregory Peck, but with Arnold Schwarzenegger's muscles, and Warren Buffet would have Paul Newman's blue eyes. In her world, Paris Hilton would have the snap and strength of Katharine Hepburn. In Rand's world, if you are poor, then you must be lazy, stupid or weak, and if you are lazy, stupid, or weak, you will be poor, and who cares? In her world, laissez faire capitalism is the only True Way and always results in the talented being rewarded. In her world, the strong and the beautiful meet and make love, but the worthiest woman, though gorgeous, is never soft, and the worthiest man, though intelligent, is never effete. To win a woman in her world, a man has to "take" her and "seize" her. Love-making in her world closely resembles rape. The prose describing these moments is hilariously bad: "They stopped and looked at each other. She knew, only when he did it, that she had known he would. He seized her, she felt her lips in [sic] his mouth, felt her arms grasping him in violent answer, and she knew for the first time how much she had wanted him to do it." (Atlas Shrugged
, p. 106.) In Rand's world, the hero-capitalists are geniuses not just at making money, but at everything. They are mathematical geniuses and philosophical geniuses, appearing as precocious teenagers in college classrooms and stumping the professors at their own game. The heroes are even geniuses at sports. When South American billionaire heart throb Francisco D'Anconia (tall, dark, sculpted, of the copper D'Anconias) comes to the U.S., he spends fifteen minutes watching a baseball game, then steps up to the plate and hits a home run "over a line of oak trees" in his first at-bat (Atlas Shrugged
, p. 92). I love the oak trees. That's typical over-the-top Rand.
As I say, I liked Ayn Rand's books when I was an adolescent. Her comic-book superheroes appealed to me, and of course there was the sex (almost always outside of marriage--ooh la la). But even at the time, I knew she was a fool when it came to the way laissez-faire capitalism worked and the way people behaved in it. The telling issue for me was workers' unions. Rand hated them. Her logic about unions went like this: 1) Unions harbor some workers who are lazy and shiftless. 2) Therefore all unions are evil. 3) Therefore anyone who joins a union is lazy, shiftless, and evil. In her books, all union members are weak, stupid, and good for nothing, or else they are the ignorant dupes of union leaders who are simply exploiting them for their own purposes. To refute this view of the world in 1959, all I had to do was look across the kitchen table each night at my own father, who was a union activist for the Communication Workers of America and was the hardest-working man I knew, and one of the smartest and nicest. At work, he received anonymous notes from people calling him a "red" and a "commie" for his union work. No doubt some of these notes came from Ayn Rand disciples; Rand was a notorious commie-hater. (She had been born, Alisa Rosenbaum, in pre-revolutionary Russia.) In Rand's utopian capitalist world, no such thing as a company store or scrip or a sweat shop had ever existed. The Rockefellers and Vanderbilts and Carnegies were, in her world, saints.
It was from Rand's depiction of union members that I learned what a "straw man" argument is--a lesson that has served me well ever since. In a "straw man" argument, rather than trying to deal with your opponent's strongest positions, you deal only with his weakest ones, which you usually put in the form of an extreme weak example. Thus, Rand created union members who were smarmy, scrawny, hypocritical, and indolent; they were easier to knock down than someone like my father. The most famous example of the straw man was the "welfare mother driving a Cadillac" imagined by Ronald Reagan's Rand-influenced speechwriters. That woman never existed, as it turns out, but she was easier to argue against than the real poor. Later, in the 1998 presidential election, when Republicans couldn't deal directly with the difficult issues of prison and rehabilitation, they came up with murderer Willie Horton and used him as a substitute for Michael Dukakis. Horton was a classic straw man. Ayn Rand was the past-master of the straw man argument. As I said, the neoconservative movement owes much to her.
Having said all this, I must also say that I am glad I read the works of Ayn Rand when I did, and I would still recommend them to young people today. In fact, I found much in her philosophy to agree with: her emphasis on the importance of personal pride, on objective reason as opposed to religious faith, on the need to live your life according to your own principles, not simply to please others. But please, let us not use the cheap economic pronouncements of Ayn Rand as the basis for a political philosophy.
This gets me back to my "libertarian" friends cited at the beginning of this column. I know there are true libertarians in the world. I think William Safire, The New York Times
columnist, is one. A true libertarian wants the government to leave not only his wallet alone, but his bedroom as well. A true libertarian wants the economy to run as free from government interference as possible, short of allowing theft or fraud, but a true libertarian also wants his personal life--from his religious beliefs to his sexual habits--to be free of government interference. A true libertarian believes a woman, even a pregnant one, should be able to do with her body what she wishes. A true libertarian doesn't want the government spying on him as he buys books, talks to his friends, or makes love. A true libertarian believes in the right to privacy--the right to be left alone. Ayn Rand may have been a poor novelist and a mediocre philosopher, but she was, as far as I can tell, a consistent libertarian. She believed in abortion rights, for example, and was no great believer in the institution of marriage. She would hate a government that proselytized for religion.
My question for my friends, then, is a simple one: As Ayn Rand libertarians, whom do you vote for this November? Do you vote for George Bush, who promises to protect your pocketbook but who is already spying on you and wants to control your sex life? Or do you vote for John Kerry, who may rescind your tax breaks but who will restore your civil liberties?
My libertarian friends, you say you believe in the power of "self-interest." Well, two kinds of self-interest are in play this November: one has to do with money, the other with personal freedom. So here is my question: How much are you willing to pay for your liberty? Don't look to your bookshelf. Ayn Rand is dead. It is time to think for yourselves.