Ayn Rand, the controversial Russian-born American writer, would have turned 105 years old on February 2. This anniversary takes place amidst a Rand mini-revival, sparked by the Obama Administration's push to expand government and resulting fears of socialism on the march. There has been a spike in sales of Rand's books, particularly Atlas Shrugged, the 1957 novel depicting a quasi-totalitarian future America in which the best, the brightest, and the most productive go on strike in protest. Some bloggers have bandied about the idea of such a strike under Obama going Galt, after John Galt, the leader of the revolt in the novel. Rand has recently appeared on the cover of Reason, the libertarian monthly (where I am a contributing editor) and of GQ where she was the target of a profane, vitriolic rant.
Who is Ayn Rand, and what does her renewed popularity mean? A refugee from Soviet Russia who fled Communist dictatorship in the 1920s, Rand called herself a radical for capitalism rather than a conservative. Her vision, articulated in several novels and later in nonfiction essays as the philosophy of Objectivism, earned her a sometimes cult-like following in her lifetime and beyond it.
Politically, Rand wanted to provide liberal capitalism with a moral foundation, challenging the notion that communism was a noble but unrealistic ideal while the free market was a necessary evil best suited to humanity's flawed nature. Her arguments against "compassionate" redistribution, and persecution, of wealth have lost none of their power and persuasiveness. In an era when collectivism was often seen as the inevitable way of the future, she unapologetically asserted the worth of individuals and of each person's right to exist for himself.
However, Rand's radicalism went further, rejecting the age-old ethic of altruism and self-sacrifice. While she was hardly the first philosopher to advocate a morality of individualism and rational self-interest, she formulated it in a uniquely accessible way and a uniquely passionate one, not as a dry economic construct but as a bold vision of struggle, creative achievement, and romanticism.
All this accounts for much of Rand's appeal. But that appeal is severely limited by the flaws of her worldview.
One of those flaws is Rand's unwillingness to consider the possibility that the values of the free market can coexist with other, non-individualistic and non-market-based virtues—those of family and community, for example. Instead, Rand frames even human relations in terms of trade (our concern for loved ones is based on the positive things they bring to our lives) and offered at best lukewarm support for charitable aid. When charity is mentioned in Rand's fiction, it is nearly always in a negative context. In Atlas Shrugged, a club providing shelter to needy young women is ridiculed for offering help to alcoholics, drug users, and unwed mothers-to-be.
Family fares even worse in Rand's universe. In her 1964 Playboy interview Rand flatly declared that it was "immoral" to place family ties and friendship above productive work; in her fiction, family life is depicted as a stifling swamp.
In pure form, Rand's philosophy would work very well if human beings were never helpless and dependent on others through no fault of their own. Unsurprisingly, many people become infatuated with her philosophy as teenagers only to leave it behind when concerns of family, children, and aging make that fantasy seem more and more implausible. For some, Rand becomes a conduit to more sensible small-government philosophies.
But Rand's work also has a darker, more disturbing aspect—one that, unfortunately, is all too good a fit for this moment in America's political life. That is her intellectual intolerance and her tendency to demonize her opponents. Speaking through her hero John Galt, Rand declared, There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil. She lambasted free-market theorists such as Friedrich A. Hayek for their lack of purity in allowing the government a legitimate role in alleviating poverty and its effects. In her novels, supporters of various forms of collectivism—moochers and looters—are shown as acting by stealth to take over and corrupt society and culture.
Rand's detractors have often branded her a fascist. The label is unfair, but her work does have shades of a totalitarian or dictatorial mentality. To refute this charge, Rand's defenders point to her explicit statements that force is acceptable only in self-defense. Yet her fiction sometimes seems to contradict this principle.
Particularly troubling is a passage in Atlas Shrugged in which bureaucratic incompetence and arrogance lead to a deadly train wreck. Rand sarcastically notes that many people would regard the dead passengers as innocent victims of a tragedy and then, in a series of brief character sketches, endeavors to show that they were far from innocent: All had benefited from evil government programs, promoted evil political or philosophical ideas, or both. Especially chilling is Rand's casual mention of the fact that one of these evildoers, a bureaucrat's wife, is traveling with her three young children.
Rand does not advocate these people's murder (though she is sympathetic to a trainmaster who chooses not to avert the disaster, partly in revenge against the regulators). Yet she clearly suggests that they had it coming. Both in Atlas Shrugged and in Rand's nonfiction essays, political and ideological debates are treated as wars with no innocent bystanders.
Rand's achievement as a promoter of the ideas of individual liberty, reason, and the free market remains unquestionable. In the 21st century, when our public discourse is often dominated by religious conservatives on the right and collectivists on the left, such a message could have been a rallying point for what the neo-Objectivist philosopher David Kelley calls "Enlightenment-based values." Unfortunately, her extremism limits her value as a messenger, and our current intellectual climate makes it likely that many of her new admirers will adopt not her best traits but her worst: intolerance, paranoia, and dehumanization of the enemy.
Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at cathyyoung.wordpress.com. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics. This column previously appeared at Reason.com.