Ayn Rand: Used and Misunderstood
Posted September 20, 2012on:
This is a very large, complicated topic. And I am grateful for the chance to air some thoughts. I have been baffled and frustrated for many years by what I hear people say about Ayn Rand. She is made out to be the heroine of the Conservative, Right-wing, Free-market, Libertarian, Trickle-down, Supply-side economics proponents. But, in fact, I believe, those who profess to be her followers are doing exactly the opposite of what she herself would have wanted.
I started reading Ayn Rand when I was 17. I have read all of her novels; most of them several times. I am not a Libertarian. In fact I have objections to many Libertarian views. But I have been frustrated for many years by, what I perceive to be, a massive misinterpretation of what Ayn Rand wrote and believed.
As a matter of fact, she did not call herself a Libertarian. She created her own philosophy that she called Objectivism. The basis of which is that no one should live their life for the sake of another without regard to their own personal value. A direct push-back against the communist oppression she experienced growing up in Soviet Russia where the State is everything and the individual doesn’t count.
Her writings about enlightened self-interest are often twisted into accusations of selfishness but are actually more in line with the what they tell you on an airplane: Put your own oxygen mask on first. Then you can help others. In point of fact, there are many instances in her novels of characters making enormous personal sacrifices for others in order to live up to the obligations they have committed to.
Ayn Rand grew up in Russia and rebelled against the control of the Soviet government. So It is understandable that she would talk about being free of governmental control. But the heroes in her novels are quite different from the industrialist and CEOs of our present day reality even though they claim to be aligned with her beliefs. Ayn Rand was an Atheist, pro-choice and a firm believer in a rational view of reality that permitted no deviation from actual facts.
In Ayn Rand’s novels the heroes are people who create real value – not financial manipulators who just amass more and more money. I see a major difference between her characters and the conservative business owners of today in that her heroes value the contributions of everyone, at every level , who contribute to their success. And her industrialists take care of their employees and their customers, treat them fairly and take full responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
The ethics of her main characters is such that no regulation is necessary because they would never choose to do anything unethical or take advantage of anyone. No unions are necessary because the employers take such good care of their employees that an outside agency to control wages and working conditions is not needed. I do not think I am putting words in her mouth when I say that Ayn Rand’s “free market” does not the take the shape of today’s conservative notion where anyone is free to abuse ethical standards, cheat their customers and employees and destroy the environment in pursuit of wealth and power.
Ayn Rand’s heroes are copper magnates and architects and owners of railroads, yes. But also janitors and gardeners and assembly line workers who do their jobs in an excellent way. Employer and employee trade value for value and the employer always acknowledges the contribution of the smallest cog in the wheel that allows their businesses to run.
In her novel “Atlas Shrugged” two of the main characters are Dagny Taggart and her brother James Taggart who co-own the railroad. Dagny is the brains behind the operation and the one who runs the business. James is the moocher who doesn’t want to put out any effort and wants to live the high life off the company’s earnings. James almost gets away with it until, near the end of the story, it is his secretary who finally realizes his true nature and takes him down. The secretary is one of the novel’s true heroes.
Ayn Rand’s heroes would never play the financial gambling games that have brought us to the brink of economic ruin because – and she is quite clear about this – money is only a tool to be used for the creation of goods and circumstances. She says this over and over: Money is not evil. It is the love of money that is destructive and to be avoided.
The villains of Ayn Rand’s novels are the moochers who think the world owes them whatever they want without any effort of their own. Her villains try to get away with not doing any of the work themselves and expect others to supply them with whatever they want. These moochers believe they are entitled to whatever they want simply because they want it. That is very different from the category of people in our country being called “moochers” and “welfare mothers”, etc. When your own government has allowed your jobs to be outsourced overseas and Wal-mart has destroyed your cities’ economy to such a degree that there are no jobs to be had in your town it is not “mooching” to accepting help from governmental safety-net programs when no other options are available to help you feed your family. It is not “mooching” to collect social security after you have spent a lifetime paying a portion of each and every pay check into the system.
The richest, most conservative among us believe that humans are only valuable if they are creating more wealth. That is why politicians like Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan are so callous about the poor and elderly. THOSE people, the poor, the elderly and the infirm, can’t create wealth anymore so, in the view of the wealthy conservatives, they have no value and don’t deserve any respect or consideration.
Rand would not have aligned herself with today’s conservative movement which has chosen to air only bits and pieces of her philosophy in order to rationalize their own positions. The following quote is from Jennifer Burns, history professor at Stanford University and author of “Goddess of the Market : Ayn Rand and the American Right “:
“ Libertarians who borrowed her political ideas but didn’t buy her epistemology were “a monstrous, disgusting bunch of people,” “plagiarizers,” and “scum.” Conservatives were far, far worse. “Futile, impotent and culturally dead,” conservatives could only “accelerate this country’s uncontested collapse into despair and dictatorship.” Despite their agreement on capitalism, unlike most conservatives Rand was a forthright atheist who supported abortion rights and opposed the Vietnam War. After her death, her philosophy was liberated from its origins; it was now possible to mix and match bits and pieces of Rand’s ideology to better fit the emerging conservative worldview. “
In the worlds of Ayn Rand’s novels it is excellence that is valued and rewarded whether that comes in the form of a railroad, a piece of art or the ability to care for a child. Everyone’s contribution is valued and the ideals to be aspired to are not limited to financial wizardry.
Another false parallel that is being drawn between Rand’s writings and the actions of today’s conservative power structure is the intention behind, and the consequences of, the growing gap separation of uber-wealthy and lower-income populations. What we see happening in our society is a massive grab by the wealthiest among us for as much wealth, power and as many resources as they can take regardless of the consequences to the rest of the world. The rich surround themselves with comfort and luxury while allowing the cities around them to suffer.
Again, a reference to Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged” comes into play. The main character of this novel is John Galt. Galt sees that the true producers and creators of the world are being used by those around them. People with no talent or desire to achieve have come to believe that they have a claim on those that do and are making victims of the creators without any regard for their rights and needs. Galt decides to create a civilization apart from the world at large where the producers can be free of the moochers and be properly acknowledged and rewarded for what they produce. He approaches each person who is being drained and shows them how they are being victimized. He then gives them an alternative: Stop supporting your own destruction. Quit. Leave the moochers behind and live in Galt’s Gulch, hidden from the world, among only those who will also live honorably as responsible creators.
One by one the “brains of the world” disappear and the outside world falls apart because there is no one left who will take the time and effort to reason out how to fix anything.
That is quite different from the power and resource grab we are witnessing today by the wealthy moochers who believe the world is theirs to drink from without ever refilling the pool.
The notion that Ayn Rand would approve of what today’s conservative, right wing, Republicans are doing is just plain wrong. I believe her views are being twisted and used in ways she never intended.