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Ayn Rand and Modern Politics

Hunter Baker, Associate Dean of Arts & Science
Apr 29, 2011

Much note has been taken recently, especially on the Internet, of the late novelist Ayn Rand's influence on contemporary politicians and economists. Rand's most prominent novels are "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead," the latter of which was the basis of a 1947 movie starring Gary Cooper. According to Wikipedia, a 1991 survey for the Book-of-the-Month Club ranked "Atlas Shrugged" as the most influential book in the respondents' lives second only to the Bible. Prominent among Rand's political admirers are Paul Ryan (author of the Republican 2012 budget proposal), Rand Paul, Ron Paul and Alan Greenspan. Greenspan was a member of Rand's inner circle of friends.

Rand's novels were primarily vehicles for Objectivism, her own philosophy, which she described in terms of four basic assumptions. Together, the first two assumptions are that reality exists independent of our beliefs or emotions and that the only way to know reality is through reason. But Rand is hardly the first person ever to have made such assertions.

Rand's third assumption is that since each individual is "an end in himself ..., not a tool for the goals and purposes of others, ... the highest expression of morality is the pursuit of self-interest and our own happiness." Here, I assume that by happiness she means well being. The fourth assumption is that the way to achieve the goal of the third assumption is "unfettered capitalism."

Rand's work has been seen by her fans as a foreshadowing of the economic crisis of the last decade and by her critics as the cause of the crisis because of her emphasis on self-interest. According to some reports, by 2007 her books had sold 25 million copies and in 2008 alone, 800,000 were sold.

Born in Russia in 1905, Rand came to the U.S. in 1926. Although it always is risky to interpret a writer's work on the basis of his or her environment, it is plausible to view Rand's extremism, to some degree, as a reaction to the absolutism in Russia of the Czars and the Communists alike and to the socialistic elements of the New Deal in this country.

It also would be easy to attribute Rand's emphasis on self-interest to her atheism. But other atheists have had views radically different from hers on topics such as individualism and social responsibility, and one does not have to be an atheist to agree with her political and economic views. House Budget Chairman Ryan is a Roman Catholic. Actor Jim Carrey is said to read from "books by inspirational novelists like Ayn Rand and C.S. Lewis." One might easily appreciate elements of Rand and Lewis, therefore, but the combination will produce something quite different from either of them.

To say Ryan's economic reforms simply are legislative expressions of Rand's self-interest ethic also would be risky. But those reforms and Rand's philosophy seem to make the same basic error — the assumption that in a fallen world socio-economic and political absolutes inevitably lead to ruin. But it should be no surprise that in a world in which the primary expression of fallen human nature is self-interest, novels that justify that condition with noble sounding words are best sellers.

This article originally appeared in the April 29th edition of The Jackson Sun