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There’s something about Ayn

Guest post by Andrew Murphy

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane.

–Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

The American Right once kept its distance from the obtuse philosopher Ayn Rand, and cheered Whittaker Chambers as he denounced her Nietzschean ethics. Now some are digging up Rand in hopes that her call for rational selfishness and laisez-faire capitalism will rejuvenate the Right.

There is no question that a massive vacuum now exists in what was the American Right, and in that vacuum what was once in the fringe of the movement, is more and more going mainstream. This can be seen in Fox News giving conspiracy buff and 9/11 truther Alex Jones a forum. It can be seen in allowing the John Birch Society to co-sponsor CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) in 2010. Or it can be read in mainstream conservative websites like World Net Daily publishing an article calling for a right wing military coup against the current administration. It can be empirically demonstrated by the fact that the Tea Party organizers fail to condemn the racists and anti-Semites who show up to their rallies. Charles Johnson’s Little Green Footballs blog gives a full laundry list of what ails the American Right.

One almost gets the feeling that many on the Right have dusted off Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay,“The Paranoid Style in American Politics” and said, “Hey this wasn’t written as a warning to us but a playbook for political recovery.”

The Ayn Rand saga is a bit of a different story though. There is a renaissance going on with this late philosopher these days. Two new biographies have recently been published, the December 2009 issue of Reason magazine proclaims “She’s Back” and Rand’s acolytes are showing up on Fox News more and more. Rand’s book “Atlas Shrugged” is selling better than at any time since it was first published in 1957.

After the derivative and subprime mortgage meltdown of 2008, most of which was due to deregulation and indifference on the government’s part to monitor the industry, the idea of embracing an advocate of laisez-faire capitalism seems almost quixotic– especially since even one of Ayn Rand’s former disciples, Alan Greenspan,the former head of the Federal Reserve has admitted he was all wet in his belief in allowing the market to self-regulate: “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.”

Ayn Rand does offer easy answers for many. The Russian émigré who came to the United States in 1926 saw first hand the horror of the Soviet Union, yet instead of simply becoming a critic of totalitarian ideology, she created an individualist cult. Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine calls it the “Unlikeliest Cult in History”. While Rand claimed to be an advocate of pure reason, those who were around her tell a different story.

Murray Rothbard, the libertarian philosopher who was an early associate of Rand wrote later of his experience: “It… promoted slavish dependence on the guru in the name of independence; adoration and obedience to the leader in the name of every person’s individuality; and blind emotion and faith in the guru in the name of Reason.”

Former Rand insider and lover Nathaniel Brandon wrote in his autobiography, “Judgment Day,” that Rand built up a cult in which the following truths HAD to be acknowledged to avoid excommunication from her circle:

* Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived.

* “Atlas Shrugged” is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world.

* Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man’s life on earth.

* Once one is acquainted with Ayn Rand and/or her work, the measure of one’s virtue is intrinsically tied to the position one takes regarding her and/or it.

* No one can be a good Objectivist who does not admire what Ayn Rand admires and condemn what Ayn Rand condemns.

* No one can be a fully consistent individualist who disagrees with Ayn Rand on any fundamental issue.

* Since Ayn Rand has designated Nathaniel Braden as her “intellectual heir,” and has repeatedly proclaimed him to be an ideal exponent of her philosophy, he is to be accorded only marginally less reverence than Ayn Rand herself.

* But it is best not to say most of these things explicitly (excepting,
perhaps, the first two items). One must always maintain that one arrives at one’s beliefs solely by reason.

Many of Rand’s defenders will say, “Nobody is perfect” and her philosophy should be judged apart from her own personal shortcomings. This is true but rather remarkable, since many of those who say and write this are ones who cheered when Paul Johnson’s book “Intellectuals” came out. Johnson, before savaging Marx, Tolstoy, Shelly, Russell and others, wrote in the introduction, “This book is an examination of the moral and judgmental credentials of certain leading intellectuals to give advice to humanity on how to conduct its affairs……….How did they run their lives? With what degree of rectitude did they behave to family, friends and associates? Were they just in their sexual and financial dealings?”

Therefore if anyone thinks that Marx being a moocher off Engels and Tolstoy being an over-sexed pig should be weighed in evaluating their books and philosophy, then why are Ayn Rand’s personal proclivities not worthy of note?

But let’s play in their ballpark and examine Rand’s beliefs.

She and her followers claim that her philosophy is an extension of the Enlightenment, yet Rand wrote that Immanuel Kant, one of the leading figures of the Enlightenment, was the most evil man in history and his philosophy was the exact opposite of Objectivism (Rand’s name for her philosophy). Her view and understanding of Kant was so shallow that even Randian philosophers have had to admit (gulp) she was wrong about Kant.

Likewise, Rand’s war on self-sacrificing shows a lack of understanding of the term. When most people “self-sacrifice” for something, they almost always are giving up a less thing for a greater idea or thing. For example, John Doe wants to buy a new car this year, so John Doe stops going out to eat and cuts back his personal home budget so he can have enough for the down payment at the end of the year. Or the doctor who goes to work for Doctors without Borders, self-sacrifices a Western-style physician’s income for something he/she deems is greater than money– helping the Third World become healthier. Rand, however, claimed in her famous interview with American talk show host Phil Donahue that, “What I mean by ’sacrifice’… and what is generally meant ….is to give up some value that is important to you for something else that is a lesser value…or a non-value.”

Similarly, much of she ascribes to the horror of self-sacrificing or the altruistic heart of man in fact, can be laid at the feet of irrational selfishness. For example, Joseph Stalin did not kill millions because of altruism but out of personal greed for absolute power.

Christopher Hitchens calls Rand’s demand for more selfishness in the world an act of pure supererogation. While Rand’s devotees gobble up her attacks on government in her novels, many completely ignore some of the really dark stuff in them. In “Atlas Shrugged,” she writes with glee about one of the heroes, Nat Taggert, murdering a state legislator in cold blood simply because the legislator tries to revoke a charter for Taggert’s business. Or even worse, she gives moral sanction to punishment for thought crimes. A railroad worker who works for the government-owned rail system causes a train to wreck to punish the passengers. Here is what Rand writes about them:

The man in Bedroom A, Car No One, was a professor of sociology who taught that individual ability is of no consequence, that everything is achieved collectively, that it’s the masses that count, not men… The woman in Roomette 10, Car No 3, was an elderly school teacher who spent her life turning class after class of helpless schoolchildren into miserable cowards, by teaching them that the will of the majority is the only standard of good and evil, that they must not assert their personalities, but do as others were doing.

In an Objectivist-run country, wouldn’t a Dzerzhinsky be a necessity?

Randian views of capitalism are ahistorical and highly selective. In a famous essay, she claimed big business was America’s most persecuted minority and the 19th century was an era of laisez-faire capitalism. Rand ignores the fact that the great drivers of American capitalism in the 19th century succeeded because of government, not a lack thereof. James Jerome Hill, the great railroad tycoon, got started because of government land grants to railroads. Andrew Carnegie,the American steel tycoon, freely admitted the most important event in his life was the Congressionally-approved tariffs on imported steel in 1870. And J.P. Morgan, one of the first great American corporate financiers, got his start selling weapons to the government during the American Civil War. Thus it is no wonder even rightwing libertarians find Randian historiography suspect.

While Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Fox News and Tea Partiers quote Ayn Rand, they may be surprised to find that while she may have advocated laisez-faire capitalism, she had no problems at all with a high marginal tax rates. In 1962 she said Americans should pay an 80% tax rate if needed for defense.

Would those on the American Right trying to bring Ayn Rand back to life “shrug” at the idea of paying an 80% marginal tax rate, even for defense?