De-“Randing” America

Ayn Rand, Andre the Giant satire

It’s easy to ignore Ayn Rand. The extremity of her views makes it easy to write her followers off as fringe characters in the already-far Right. However, ignoring Rand and her Objectivist philosophy has in fact facilitated her movement from the fringes toward the mainstream. Now, thirty years after her death, it’s dangerous to ignore her.

Gary Weiss’ new book Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul attempts to shed light on the changing dynamics of Rand’s followers and their influence on American politics and culture. It’s an important read but one that is likely trapped behind the eight-ball in terms of an ideal audience.

Rand fans are likely to dismiss the book and call Weiss’s understanding of Objectivism cursory or erroneous, as two Atlas Society writers recently did. Meanwhile, non-Rand fans are likely to be disinterested or not familiar enough with Rand to be attracted to the book.

Much of Ayn Rand Nation consists of Weiss’s witty, sometimes acerbic, descriptions of Rand’s present-day acolytes. The removed, tongue-in-cheek manner in which he portrays them is precisely what makes the book entertaining. For example, upon meeting former BB&T Corp. CEO John A. Allison IV, Weiss remarks, “He looked the part of an Objectivist hero, being thin and reasonably tall. An anthropologist would have a field day researching body types among followers of Ayn Rand. As of this writing I have yet to meet a short, obese Objectivist.”

At times, Ayn Rand Nation seems like a National Geographic episode on the Objectivist species in its natural habitat. Weiss’s wry voice as a writer is present throughout the text – from his concept of a free, unregulated market in his youth (Benny the Goniff cheating customers from his New York City fruit stall) to his account of a public university professor ironically advocating for a philosophy that is against the existence of state-funded universities.

However, the same qualities that make Ayn Rand Nation entertaining are at times distracting from the crucial point in Weiss’s argument: revealing the extent of Rand’s influence on the American economic system via acolyte Alan Greenspan and, most significantly, what her growing stature might mean for the future of the United States. Indeed, this part of Weiss’s book, its real meat, is largely confined to the very beginning and the final fifty pages. But this is still its strongest aspect.

Weiss’s rhetoric shines in his summaries of Greenspan’s Objectivist writings and the philosophy’s impact on his actions as former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. It’s also the area in which Weiss has the greatest expertise, as a former BusinessWeek reporter and author of two books on finance. Greenspan’s early writings represent his most raw support for Objectivism, before his transformation into a seasoned government man adept at “doublespeak.” In a 1957 letter published in The New York Times Book Review, Greenspan writes, “Atlas Shrugged is a celebration of life and happiness … Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.”

Occupy solidarity demonstration. San Francisco, October 2011.

Then, in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966,) Greenspan’s three essays argue against government regulation, including building codes, and maintains that businessmen and —women’s — greed actually protects consumers. Weiss contends that the early Greenspan’s ardor for Rand and Objectivism never truly receded. To prove his point, he uses examples from Greenspan’s later career, such as advocating for the repeal of Glass-Steagall and his opposition to sending examiners into the mortgage affiliates of national banks. Weiss analyzes Greenspan’s public testimony, writings and, most significantly, his actions, and creates a compelling argument that Objectivism governed the decisions of one of the most influential U.S. economic figures of our time.

Now, roughly four years after the 2008 financial crisis, the Occupy movements and the Tea Party participants carrying “Who is John Galt?” signs each occupy their own corner of the American social landscape. The underlying sentiment for both of these radically different groups is the same – that something is very wrong in American society. Yet they differ in their views of what’s wrong, with one side finding answers in Rand. Indeed, Weiss writes that Rand’s “vision of radical capitalism has never been more popular.” He considers her the “godmother of the Tea Party and the philosophical bulwark that stands behind the Right’s assault on Social Security and Medicare.” For now Objectivism’s grounding in atheism and stance on social issues such as abortion discourage conservatives from fully embracing the philosophy. But that could change if Objectivists and the Right continue to evolve.

Part of Objectivism’s growing hold on American society lies in the Ayn Rand Institute’s educational outreach efforts, which includes giving English teachers free copies of Rand’s books if they agree to teach them to their students. That means that youth are reading Rand’s extreme capitalist, anti-altruist views at an age when they are arguably most susceptible to the influence of radical ideas. Among the institute’s most alluring student-focused measures are the essay contests it sponsors. The contests’ prizes – $10,000 for first place in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged contests, less for the other books – are enough to catch even a collectivist-leaning student’s attention. In fact, my own introduction to Rand came during high school because of the contests. I never entered them myself, but I remember reading Anthem and always having The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged  on my self-prescribed “to read” list because of the prospect of winning such a significant prize.

I, like many non-Objectivists, mostly forgot about Rand later in life. I read The Fountainhead in my early twenties and saw the dry Atlas Shrugged Part I in theaters, but likely would not have read Ayn Rand Nation if it had not been for a debate I attended in late February. The debate, hosted by the New York Financial Writers Association, featured Weiss in debate with Vic Sperandeo, a stock trader and dedicated Objectivist. I walked away from it somewhat disappointed, as the discussion centered more on Rand and Objectivism in general than the nuts and bolts details of Objectivism’s influence on Greenspan and financial regulation. I found more of the information that I wanted in Weiss’s book, though, so perhaps the debate was left purposely general.

Weiss ends Ayn Rand Nation with his dystopian vision of an America governed by Objectivist principles – a view that the Atlas Society’s William Thomas argues against in his response to the epilogue. However, the most vital part of Weiss’s message lies not in his speculation about the future, but rather what should be done now. There is a lesson to be learned from Objectivists: Philosophy needs to be brought back into the mainstream political dialogue, because without it, there’s not way to argue articulately for the social programs and altruism that Objectivists are against.

Photographs courtesy of jarrodtrainque (#1) and Steve Rhodes (#2). Published under a Creative Commons license.

7 comments

  1. Objectivism is exactly Capitalism. No more, and no less for everything in the scope of this discussion.

    Your article says how horrible “extreme capitalism” is. The word “extreme” is a red harring. Capitalism is capitalism, or Extreme capitalism is capitalism. What you are saying is that you hate capitalism. That is like hating “extreme apples”, because it is still simply an apple. (Law of identity)

    Socialists knows that full socialism fails quickly. So they want socialism infused with some capitalism. However, even through they love socialism, they know there is something wrong in that so they hide the word socialism. You are trying to redefine Capitalism=”socialism + capitalism” and extreme capitalism = “capitalism without socialism”.

    You hate Objectivism. You treat objectivism as opaque and then hate it — while you simply treat it like a label so you can ignore its meaning.

    I can make this discussion far more clearly on what is really going on. You hate capitalism (real capitalism). If you would be clear, you would clearly call what you want socialism (or hybrid socialism / capitalism).

    You should ignore Objectivism, because it is a red harring when you treat it as a label without understanding it so you can hate it. Instad, you should focus on why you hate capitalism. The fact that the nation is shifting to capital is what you hate.

    Capitalism equals Objectivism. You should substitute “capitalism” everywhere in this article where you see “objectivism”. The meaning doesn’t change. It just makes you stop dealing with a label and face the real concept that is going on.

  2. This article is an example of treating OBJECTIVISM like voodoo, in that people don’t understand it and are therefore afraid.

    So I’ll explain it very simply:
    1) Start with PURE Capitalism. People work, and they trade their work.
    2) Objectivism is the study of how people add layers of corruption over pure capitalism
    3) Objectivism proves out how these layers of corruption turn immoral from small to large ways.
    4) These layers of corruption are Wealth Transfer (poor to corporations, from some groups to others, etc.).
    5) It includes how socialism turns immoral. A country with pure socialism turns evil at such huge scale it isn’t deniable. Socialism at smaller scale over capitalism is harder to detect the evil, but it is still possible.

    Objectivism is the science of people corrupting pure capitalism to help some groups exploit other groups.

  3. Thank you for your comment. As you might expect, I disagree with your view of Objectivism. You’re focusing on capitalism and ignoring thinking the social implications of Objectivism all the way through. Would you honestly want to live in a country where there is no public education? How about building safety codes? Where I disagree with Rand is on the issue of goverment regulation and public services.

  4. Education: I think K-12 schools should be private with vouchers. The best universities are private (Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, etc.). There is no reason to believe private organizations won’t be able to run K-12 schools in a world class way. They run the best universities and they are able to create curriculum and education exceptionally well.

    Regulations: The pattern is that there are two people who want to work together, and that is often the customer and the company. Others think that the customer shouldn’t be allowed to think for themselves, so they take away their rights. They create regulations so the third party can make the decisions and put them into regulations, and then take away the ability to decide from the customer and the company.

    Creekstone Farms wants to apply Mad Cow testing to every product that they sell. The FDA made it illegal. The customer losses with these regulations. The company losses with these regulations. A third party doesn’t want the two parties (customer and company) to be able to decide themselves. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creekstone_Farms_Premium_Beef)

    Sarbanes-Oxley has killed a big part of the IPO market. For our economy to grow well, we need these companies to be able to go public without the incredible inefficiency of Sarbox. This problem is at the scale of many billions of dollars of inefficiency, if not trillions. Both political parties pretty much agree with this and everyone views that a major part of Sarbox will likely be gutted sooner or later, with the support of both political parties.

    The government makes it illegal to a great degree (through regulations) for non-millionaires to invest in private companies. Non-millionaires were not allowed to invest in Facebook before going IPO for example. Bono (from U2) was able to invest in Facebook before it IPOed because he was a millionaire, and he made $1.5 Billion from that investment. We are talking about billions of inefficiency in non-millionaires being unable to gain wealth like millionaires can, simply because of regulations. ($1.5 billion inefficiency simply by the Bono investment in Facebook alone). Both political parties know that this is wrong, and that is why crowd funding is gutting much of this regulation currently.

    Both political parties often agree regulations cause billions or trillions of dollars of problems, which is why they remove them later.

    It all comes down to two parties wanting to work together (customer and company). A third party wants to control them. The third party often creates a group (regulators, unions, governmentizing private functions) in order to legitimize taking the rights away from customers to be able to decide by themselves.

    In the company that I run, government regulations significantly slow the company down. I hire less people, higher them later than I would otherwise and I grow more slowly directly because of government regulations. I can make all problems with customers go away, but not with government relations.

    If I ever have a problems with customers or my product, I can solve them easily in an afternoon. With a bit of creativity and an afternoon, I can figure out changes to solve any problems to make customers happy. I can call customers if I need to reason with them. If there are a batch of unreasonable potential customers, then I can ignore them and find other reasonable potential customers to sell to. When a government with regulations are being irrational (I don’t have a problem they are trying to prevent), then I can’t work around them.

    I run a business and the problems caused by government are the biggest problems I face. I can fix any problems with customers. All of the problems with the government (regulations, etc.) are basically impossible to fix. I think it is business owners that by far feel the most pain and blockage from government regulations. Regulations are loved by people who want to control others.

  5. I think you are blindly dismissing the legitimacy of country shifting towards Objectivism. Real people are dealing with real problems caused by the government. They are working to remove these problems.

    Your article didn’t point out a real problem with Objectivism. Your article just pissed and moaned about Objectivism in a touchy feely way. I am pointing out real problems, large scale problems (billions and trillions of inefficiency) and how Objectivism clearly works to solve them.

    I’d recommend reading “Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand”. It will explain everything very clearly.

    Objectivism gives specifics on the logical way to connect the dots across ethics, government, philosophy, economics and more. If it was wrong, articles complaining about it could find logical flaws. Look at everyone trying to criticize it, and they aren’t finding a logically incorrect piece. Instead it is touchy feel way to piss and moan about it in a very general way.

    I’d recommend reading the Objectivism book. I think that only by getting educated and talking about specifics can you have a valid discussion to look to move the discussion forward. Dismissing in vague ways and pretending that you are valid to dismiss a group of people doesn’t hold much water.

  6. What interests me in the discussions I’ve had with libertarians and Objectivists — two categories that frequently overlap in the States — is that their critique of the way the modern state functions in the West has so much in common with Karl Marx. Obviously, libertarians and Objectivists are vigorously opposed to Marxism . But they share with Karl (and Friedrich Engels) the conviction that the rule of law, as it is implemented within Western states, is imposed unevenly and arbitrarily, to the benefit of the already-powerful and the detriment of everyone else.

  7. Objectivists and Marxists / Socialists are completely opposites. Objectivism proves that if the rights of the individual aren’t protected, then immoral actions happen against the individual (as you see historically happen at huge scale in real countries of true socialism).

    Socialism is fundamentally about taking away an individuals rights in the name of “the collective”. In the name of the “collective”, the government officials decide what to force on an individual’s life. The government officials have the right to apply brutally horrible actions on the individual with the individual having no rights, because “the collective” is what matters more than the individual.

    CORRUPTED CAPITALISM: A country could start with pure clean merit based capitalism. People like to hi-jack government away from capitalism and add ways to benefit special interest groups (in the name of “regulations”, etc.). In your comments, everyone hates when this happens (Objectivists, Socialists, and everyone else) — except for the special interests corrupting government.

    In no way are Objectivism and Socialism the name, except in their hatred of corrupted capitalism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *