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.