5 Things the Right Can Learn from Ayn Rand

5 Things the Right Can Learn from Ayn Rand

Conservatives could stand to take Ayn Rand's ideas a little more seriously, and less grudgingly.
Robert Tracinski

In The Federalist, Hunter Baker recently argued that conservatives should approach the ideas of Ayn Rand with a little more “Christian charity,” and that they should reverse the attempt by William F. Buckley and Whittaker Chambers, decades ago, to drum Ayn Rand out of the right. I have a few quibbles with this piece, but as an advocate of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, I appreciate its spirit. It is the same thing I have been trying to do with the Bible—approaching it not with “Christian charity” so much as a spirit of intellectual curiosity. My goal isn’t to refute or dismiss the Judeo-Christian tradition, but to understand it.

Baker’s article prompted a less charitable response from Heather Wilhelm at RealClearPolitics. I’ll skip by her tendentious characterizations of Ayn Rand’s literature and ideas (Atlas Shrugged fans, prepare your eyes for some serious rolling). The bigger issue is what she describes as “the somewhat uncomfortable distance in America between many libertarians—and the broader philosophy of limited government in general—and certain Christians.”

You don’t say. The latest news is that Mike Huckabee is threatening to quit the Republican Party if they’re not willing to die on the hill of gay marriage.

Yet Wilhelm end up basically conceding the point: that the various wings of the right need to work together in a common cause, that “what pushes these two groups together—the fact that a big, bureaucratized, powerful government will inevitably smother freedom, crush creativity, and bulldoze people’s rights—also might be one of the few things that Ayn Rand got right.”

I’ll be charitable in my response and say that it’s good to have this discussion out in the open—and I would like to take it deeper. Conservatives could stand to examine Ayn Rand’s literature a little more closely and less grudgingly and to take her ideas a little more seriously.

Let me start that process by recommending the top five things I think the right can learn from Ayn Rand.

1. The crucial importance of reason.

In 1957, when Atlas Shrugged was published, it was still radical to argue that the economy is moved forward by inventors and thinkers and people with ideas, rather than the brute muscle of unionized factory workers (which is basically the Marxist view). Today, in the information age, this observation has practically become a cliché.

But I don’t think conservatives have fully taken it on board. One of the biggest ideological mistakes the right ever made was to buy into the left’s self-serving characterization as the party of reason and science that stands for “rational planning.” Throughout the 20th century, it was common on the right to accept socialist planning as “rational” and merely to warn about its “unintended consequences” or the hubris of relying “too much” on reason.

But the notion that the left and its policies are “rational” can be refuted by a look at the disastrous results everywhere this allegedly rational planning has been tried, and by the obstinate refusal of leftists to accept the results. If they were conducting a bold “experiment”—just like real scientists!—shouldn’t they be willing to accept the results of that experiment?

Or you can refute it by ten minutes’ conversation with the average leftist, who is convinced that he has science, reason, and economics on his side but has little understanding of any of these fields.

Various free-market economists, particularly Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, have chipped away at this facade of rationality in the realm of economics. They explained how government planning destroys the rational plans made by individuals in favor of plans made by bureaucrats who can never have access to enough information to coordinate the needs and incentives of millions of individuals.

But Ayn Rand took this to a deeper philosophical level, showing how coercion is inherently the enemy of thinking.

To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival; to force him to act against his own judgment, is like forcing him to act against his own sight…. Do not open your mouth to tell me that your mind has convinced you of your right to force my mind. Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins.

She dramatized this principle in her novels, particularly in the later chapters of Atlas Shrugged, where we see the economy being destroyed by the capricious edicts of panicked and corrupt regulators.

But she didn’t just critique the rationality of the rational planners; she also questioned the whole moral code they use to justify government controls. That leads us to the second lesson to be learned from Ayn Rand.

2. The pathology of altruism.

Crucial to any defense of freedom against government controls is an understanding of how the supposed “good intentions” of planners, regulators, and welfare statists can produce pathological results—how wanting to “help others” becomes a mask for paternalism, power-lust, corrupt political patronage, and the perpetuation of dependency.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal‘s James Taranto wrote about the need to understand the workings of this kind of “pathological altruism.” As I responded, no one has written a more thorough and comprehensive pathology report than Ayn Rand.

Again, her critique of altruism goes down to philosophical fundamentals. Contrary to what you might have heard, it is not a critique of benevolence or charity as such. Rather, it’s a critique of the idea that your own happiness is not a valid moral goal, that everyone must live for the sake of others. As she argued, this ends up—both logically and in practice—meaning that no one has a right to be happy. In a moment of self-confession, her villain in The Fountainhead, Ellsworth Toohey, describes the socialist ideal this way:

A world where no man will hold a desire for himself, but will direct all his efforts to satisfy the desires of his neighbor who will have no desires except to satisfy the desires of the next neighbor who will have no desires—around the globe, Peter. Since all must serve all…. Let all live for all. Let all sacrifice and none profit. Let all suffer and none enjoy.

Put in a more positive way, Ayn Rand recognized the importance of the pursuit of happiness as a moral goal of life—which, after all, is something our Founding Fathers put right in the middle of one of our founding documents as a fundamental right.

The pursuit of happiness leads us to our next point, which is about the main way most of us go about pursuing our happiness.

3. The meaning of work.

Hunter Baker is wrong to criticize Ayn Rand for “materialism” and the “reduction of the human being’s value to economic productivity.” I would refer him particularly to The Fountainhead, where most of the good guys aren’t businessmen but artists and intellectuals, and where the hero spends a good portion of the story enduring poverty in order to maintain the integrity of his artistic vision. That doesn’t fit any definition of “materialism” that I know of.

But Baker is right to highlight Ayn Rand’s advocacy of the personal value of productive work, not only as a necessity of survival and progress, but as a kind of crusade, as something that gives your life meaning. She didn’t just champion the work of captains of industry or visionary architects. As one of her characters sums it up: “There’s no such thing as a lousy job—only lousy men who don’t care to do it.” (It should go without saying that she would have loved Mike Rowe’s “Dirty Jobs.”)

A recent, very superficial treatment of Ayn Rand’s life and ideas described her as the “goddess of the market,” but that’s all wrong. Yes, she has a following on Wall Street. But Ayn Rand can really be thought of as the patron saint of the entrepreneur—the sort of person who has a vision for the kind of business he wants to build and pours years of devotion into making it a reality.

If you don’t get this point about the personal meaning of work, you won’t understand why so many people love Ayn Rand’s novels. You also won’t understand a lot of what drives their political and cultural priorities.

4. A third alternative in the culture wars.

The biggest thing that prevents people from giving a fair reading to Ayn Rand’s books is the fact that she doesn’t cooperate with a lot of the standard categories we’re usually offered—yet people keep trying to shove her back into those false alternatives. If she champions the rights of the rich, she must hate the poor. If she doesn’t believe in altruism, she must believe in exploiting the weak. And so on.

Probably the most important category she defied is captured in the expression, “If God is dead, all things are permitted.” Which means: if there is no religious basis for morality, then everything is subjective.

The cultural left basically accepts this alternative and sides with subjectivism (when they’re not overcompensating by careening back toward their own neo-Puritan code of political correctness). Then the religious right responds by saying that the only way to stem the tide of “anything goes” is to return to that old time religion.

This leaves a lot of people looking for a third alternative. As an advocate of a secular morality, that’s precisely what Ayn Rand offered. This is particularly notable in her view of sex. She rejected Puritanical prohibitions against sex, but she also rejected the view that sex is a materialistic act with no spiritual meaning. Of course, her novels are known for their sex scenes. Yet she opposed sexual promiscuity, not because she thought there was anything wrong with sensual enjoyment, but, as she said in her famous interview with Alvin Toffler in Playboy, “because sex is too good and too important.” Which is to say that she advocated her own form of non-Puritanical sexual morality.

As for the weird contradictions of modern feminism, Ayn Rand wrote some of the best strong, independent female characters in literature (particularly Dagny Taggart), but she had no truck with feminism, particularly of the Henry Higgins variety which holds that there are, or ought to be, no differences between men and women. Literarily, Ayn Rand was very much of the vive la différence school.

Conservatives may not agree with Ayn Rand’s outlook on these issues, but if they’re going to be able to talk to and get along with the more “libertarian,” Ayn-Rand-influenced wing of the right, they need to understand why that wing doesn’t think it has to pick sides between the subjectivist left and the religious right, why it thinks there’s a third alternative.

5. The importance of big ideas.

Ayn Rand is often criticized for the big philosophical speeches she puts into her novels, but the critics might want to pause and think about how many people actually read all of that heavy philosophy and become interested, even impassioned, about big ideas. Ayn Rand didn’t just inject big ideas into her writing. She believed in the importance of those ideas as a force that changes minds and moves history. And she also believed in the importance of dramatizing ideas in art. The idea that “politics is downstream from culture” is something she understood and advocated long before Andrew Breitbart stumbled upon it.

Today’s right is always complaining that the left holds the cultural high ground and that we need to do more to influence popular culture. But Ayn Rand is the only figure on the right who has really succeeded at it. She wrote some of the world’s most popular and enduring fiction, which has succeeded in the marketplace—for 70 years and still going strong—in the face of unrelenting hostility from mainstream critics. Reading her novels is practically a rite of passage for high school and college students, and in my experience, her books are the single biggest engine for bringing eager, idealistic young people into the right. She’s a big part of the reason why that pesky “libertarian” wing of the right even exists.

So instead of engaging in casual disparagement of her literary style, try learning a few things about what she did right. (If you want a start—well, did I mention I’m writing a book about it?)

Grasping what the right can learn from Ayn Rand also means grasping what a certain faction of the right has already learned from her and understanding their perspective—which can certainly help in having a civil dialogue and keeping together an ideological coalition that opposes all-powerful government.

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