Poor Paul Ryan is probably still getting an earful from critics (many of them Christians) about his earlier enthusiasm for Ayn Rand. Somehow, he hadn’t gotten the memo on how disreputable the Russian émigré was and remains. Ryan must have missed “Dirty Dancing,” which has a famous scene in which a spoiled, rich, young man denies his responsibility to a working-class girl he has left pregnant. “Some people count and some don’t,” he says as he brandishes a copy of Rand’s “The Fountainhead.”
Now, if that’s what Rand says, then line her up with Adolf Hitler for history’s all-star firing squad. But is that what she said or intended? Does she deserve the condemnation heaped upon villains with vile philosophies? Perhaps there is a more charitable way to read the tales of Roark, Taggart, Rearden, and Galt.
Christians, in particular, have a deep ambivalence about Ayn Rand that probably draws as deeply from the facts of her biography as from her famous novels. When the refugee from the old Soviet Union met the Catholic William F. Buckley, she said, “You are much too intelligent to believe in God.” Her atheism was militant. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t believe in God as she was actively against the whole idea. If God existed, she felt, man suffered a degradation. Her heroic man, who tamed fire at his fingertips with a stylish and pleasure-giving cigarette, stood on top of creation and didn’t kneel for anyone. Rather than venerating the cross, Rand took the dollar sign as her holy symbol. Why? Because the dollar was a proxy for economic value. And for her, economic value was the primary pursuit of a life properly lived.
Critiquing the Whittaker Chambers Takedown
One of Buckley’s missions in politics was to police the boundaries of the conservative movement. He has been credited with delegitimizing the John Birch Society as a representative organization of the Right. In the case of Rand, he gave Whittaker Chambers the job of reviewing “Atlas Shrugged” for National Review. Chambers was a phenomenally gifted writer. We remember him for “Witness,” which may be one of the greatest memoirs ever written and certainly one of the best of the twentieth century. So great was his talent that he had earlier reached the elite ranks of Time where he had been paid like a star at a magazine that awarded no bylines. He was one of publisher Henry Luce’s favorites. Chambers hated Rand’s book. He thought her philosophy logically led to the extinction of the less fit. The piece characterized Rand’s message as, “To a gas chamber, go!” Chambers wasn’t impressed with her prose style, either. His take-down of “Atlas Shrugged” effectively read Rand and the Objectivists out of the conservative movement.
In truth, the great Chambers probably treated Rand’s work unfairly in terms of the content if not with regard to writerly craft. Rand did have disdain for some people, but her lack of respect was not based on physical weakness, class, or color so much as it was aimed at those she thought lacked virtue. Contempt may have its place if it aims at a form of evil. The author certainly saw herself as wielding scorn in exactly that fashion.
One of the worst villains in the novel is Dagny Taggart’s brother, James. He is a rich man who refuses to run his (inherited) company on legitimate competitive terms. Instead, he prefers crony capitalism married to vague notions of social responsibility. Instead of out-competing his rivals, Jim Taggart hopes to have them outlawed. He courts politicians rather than excellence. By Rand’s reckoning, Taggart’s outlook and actions rank him with the lowest of the low. He is a powerful leech.
Productivity: The Great Life-Affirming Activity
The good society for an Objectivist is one in which a man stands or falls on his productivity. As Rand explained in her lectures on ethics, she saw production as the one great life-affirming activity. Man does not automatically or instinctively derive his sustenance from the earth or the sun. He must labor and produce. This was Rand’s bedrock and explains why she had such disdain for those who try to gain wealth through political arrangements. She saw this parasitism on multiple points of the economic spectrum from the beggar to the bureaucrat to the purveyor of incestuous corporatism. In the Randian view, a person with integrity creates value and exchanges it with others in an open and honest way. One does not cleverly reserve either a wage or a market. One earns them.
At this point it makes sense to return to the famous scene from “Dirty Dancing” in which Rand’s accusers put words in her mouth and leave no room for response. “Some people count and some don’t.” The implication, given the class dynamics in the film, is that the rich have worth and the poor do not. But Rand would have been outraged at the thought. In her economy, a shiftless man of wealth would rank well below a blue-collar welder who performs his craft with excellence (and probably also a talented dancer at a resort).
Her point of view is far more defensible if properly understood. Rand extols the captains of industry, the men and women who have a drive to change the world for the better and to get rich in the bargain. That much is certain. But the novels also make clear her love for any man or woman who performs a job well. She sees dignity, joy, and love in work rather than in wealth per se.
Ayn Rand Versus Christianity
The critical tension between Rand and Christian theology is on human worth. Christians affirm the inherent and very high value of individuals because of their creation in the image of God. Rand values human beings primarily for their achievements. A person who does not offer value (specifically, economic value) gets dubbed a “moocher” and “looter.” The language is inflammatory to most people, but rankles Christians even more so due to their devotion to the idea of the human being as a bearer of God’s image.
Rand’s atheism, materialism, and reduction of the human being’s value to economic productivity are all reasonable targets of critique for a variety of good reasons. Let those arguments continue to be made, though perhaps with less rancor. But it is important to be clear about the charges for which Rand should not have to answer. She was an atheist and clearly had an insufficient appreciation for (and accounting of) human solidarity, but she loved freedom and she understood the importance of work for human flourishing. And finally, although some accused her of fascism, she ardently opposed the cut-rate philosophy that makes an idol of the state.
Ayn Rand deserves some of the opposition she has received from Christians and many others. But she also deserves better.