In the summer of 1977 I was home from college ambling around our local library looking for a novel to read. I was also there because I wanted to ask Ann Jefferson out on a date and knew she worked in the library. I found her quickly enough and we chatted a bit while I roamed the stacks. I didn’t get up the nerve to ask her out, but I did sort of stumble on this big-ass tome of a book called The Fountainhead by a writer with a weird name.
I devoured Ayn Rand’s first successful novel about Howard Roark, a brilliant young architect who will not give up his priniciples about art and creativity to achieve what others believe would be success. At that point in my life I had never heard of Ayn Rand. All I could tell from the front jacket of the book was that it was about art and freedom. That was important to me. Other than lucking into information, in those days there was no way to easily research authors and the context their fiction came out of. To me, this was a powerfully told story about artistic and intellectual integrity. It struck me deeply. I knew what I wanted to do with my life, but had been afraid to take a step in that direction. I was 19.
The Fountainhead spurred me on and gave me a little tiny bit of rebellious courage. After finishing the book just before dinner one night, an idea for a short story struck me and by about 2:00 the next morning I finished my first attempt ever at a sustained narrative that had not been assigned in school.
A week later, still petrified by the prospect of asking Ann Jefferson out, I returned The Fountainhead to our library and checked out Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s magnum opus. I can safely say that anyone who wants to be anything in this country needs to read Atlas Shrugged. But I caution you, this book has become the basis for an extremely misguided, over-simplified philosophical approach to life that now threatens the very notion of the American Way of Life. Still, Rand presents the idea of freedom and self-realization as directly and definitively as anything you will ever read. That book was an important precursor to how I would live my life.
Let me relate first why I found Atlas Shrugged, at the age of 19, so important. I believe every person is born with creative potential and talent. I believe as well that the particular society into which people are born and raised establishes the illusion of order and harmony by demanding that individuals follow rules and adhere to acceptable ways of thinking. If you follow the rules and don’t rock the boat, if you don’t question things or pose alternative views of the way things should be, you are often rewarded. Some people get rewarded more than others.
Atlas Shrugged, to me, is all about this problem. Rand creates a sort of near future dystopian world in which the likes of Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden are pushed into a clandestine rebellion against a society demanding conformity and wanting to take some of their money through taxes and control of their businesses and wealth. To me, this was an extension of the problem of intellectual integrity that is brought up in The Fountainhead.
Rand, of course, goes over the top in Atlas Shrugged, with what has become the philosophy of objectivism. Objectivism pits “objective self-interest” against altruism — the individual versus the community. Objectivism is posed as a rebellious, innovative, and positive solution to all the world’s troubles. I learned later what most people learn if they pay attention to such things — that Rand was writing specifically as an attack against the principles of communism and socialism espoused in her native Russia and still quite ripe in the American political grassroots of the 1940s and into the 1960s. Rand’s work eventually created a nexus for young impressionable conservative thinkers who wanted to see capitalism work, who believed in the power of individual self-interest and found the ideas of collective and social good anathema to a just and righteous world based on freedom and individual talent.
I know I oversimplify here. Objectivism does have subtlties and nuance built into it. I for one believe in the integrity of the individual and have seen over and over the profound success of creative intellectuals ignoring the rules and the constraints of American Society. Steve Jobs is as good an example of what Ayn Rand had in mind for our future as anyone. So was Thomas Edison. Artists have succeeded because they listened to their own beat. Take your choice, from Picasso to Tupac, Miles, and David Foster Wallace, the world of self-expression only develops and grows because of innovative, individualistic genius.
But it is here at the term “genius” that Rand’s philosophy falls apart. Most of us are not geniuses. Most of us are not brilliant. Many of us are discriminated against openly by the status quo. Most of us are not born into money. We need each other to succeed. Some of us are mentally ill or have limited intellects. Many of us have suffered abuse in one way or another as children. Most of us are the products of divorced parents and emotionally intense upbringings. Most of us compensate for pain and loss in our lives in one way or the other, and this compensation inevitably works against us — be that insecurity, alcohol/drug addiction, anger management problems, criminal behavior, bullying, or repressed needs.
Life is hard for whatever reason. Sometimes it’s just a matter of bad luck. I’ve known many Ayn Rand Objectivists in my life. I’ve read a lot about them as well over the past decade or two since this new conservative movement has grown more and more entrenched in this country of good, strong, capable people. One thing that strikes me is that most of the people I know of who adhere to Randian principles come from very fortunate backgrounds and/or are relatively well off. Paul Ryan, Romney’s Vice Presidential candidate, is a perfect example. The guy is part of a construction industry dynasty.
It really seems logical that if you have a lot of money and there’s a world view out there giving you the means to justify your desire not to share that wealth with others — and you happen to not really be that intellectually sophisticated — why wouldn’t you wrap yourself in that perspective?
However, my original 19-year-old reading of Atlas Shrugged didn’t really register the problem with government and taxes as the basis for her philosophy. What appealed to me was her absolute deification (if that’s possible) of what she calls “reason” and it’s corollary, egoism. Atlas Shrugged isn’t really so much about the problem of government as it is, to me, about the problem of the individual within a social system that mindlessly demands fealty and compliance by default.
And yet, somehow, the spawn of Ayn Rand is this very odd group of conservative thinkers and politicians in America who simplistically believe that there are “takers” and “makers” and that liberal enlightenment political philosophy supports the “takers” approach to things at the expense of the “makers.” Top leaders of the Cato Institute, which was once a fringe joke of an organization in America, have made it known for years that they follow the principles of Ayn Rand. Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve for nearly 20 years was also strongly influenced by Rand’s philosophy. And now we have the likes of Paul Ryan (he ain’t going away folks) and the Tea Party to contend with.
I wonder, though, how deep a thinker Rand was and how much she was just a contrarian. Certainly, she loathed communism and socialism and Christianity, but we are all products of our upbringing. Show me an intelligent person who doesn’t have a streak of rebellion in them, and hostility to some chunk of the status quo, and I’ll show you a boring, complacent, party pooper with no creativity whatsoever.
Paul Ryan comes from one of the most liberal, progressive, and left-leaning states in the Union. It’s not hard to understand how easy it would be to embrace Objectivism when everyone around you is talking union politics (remember, the Ryan family has a construction company) and wanting to create government services to support people who need health care, support with education, pension benefits, etc.“I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.”
The implications of this New Age view of objectivism are so obviously class based and prejudiced it is impossible to think today’s advocates are exercising what Rand meant by reason. Any good business owner knows that their success is a function of their customers and employees. Selfishness is not the same as self-interest. It is in any intelligent business person’s self-interest to have educated employees and healthy customers. Public safety and lifelong security are essential to a positive consumer attitude. Clean air, water, and soil minimize unnecessary suffering. A rational, free economy is predicated on fully accounting for all the costs of production — including externalities like pollution, crime, and war. And a well-funded infrastructure, paid for out of the communal coffers, is the basis of getting products to market cheaply and efficiently.
The American Way of Life is a great and magical thing. We are, for the most part, the envy of the world. But we’re not envied because we have a bunch of rich assholes running around doing whatever they want. The American Way is about balance between freedom and community. It’s about the public and private sector working together. And it’s about good people taking care of each other.
Both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged sit on the bookshelves in my living room. But so does Das Kapital, and The Good Society, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. There’s no question in my mind that Ayn Rand’s work is important to understand, but that’s only because I think for myself and know how hard life is for so many people living in the world. The first postulate of reason, in my opinion, is this idea of thinking for yourself. The second postulate is understanding that you are who you are because thousands of people thinking for themselves have contributed to making this amazing nation what it has become. And the third postulate is having empathy for those less fortunate than you through no fault of their own. Empathy is a form of reason, is it not?
So if someone says they “believe” in the principles of Ayn Rand, or are committed objectivists, ask them what they think of religion or evolution. Ask them if they’d like their kids to get scholarships to college, and how they commute to work everyday. Then ask them who they like more, Howard Roark or Hank Rearden. Then, finally, say this: “I know who John Galt is. Do you?”
Then just walk away. It’s a bit of an extended interchange, but it does the trick every time.
And mark my words, Paul Ryan is going to run for President in 2016 [okay, I was wrong here…still, there’s always 2020] and he’s got a very good chance of winning. Ayn Rand and her boy toys aren’t going away folks. They’re just getting started. But trust me, they haven’t got a clue who John Galt is. Do you?
Originally published at OpenSalon.
Also published on Medium.