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FEBRUARY 1, 2013 1:50PM

Why I Love Ayn Rand's Books But Am Still a Liberal

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Atlas Shrugged Walking

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, alcohohol/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 world view?

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 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 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." 

-Ayn Rand.

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 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.  

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 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?





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I've tried but never been able to get through the first couple of pages. I reacted to the language, which had so little subtlety and nuance I couldn't consider it fiction.

Personally, I prefer philosophy and social theory in their proper context, not watered down in a form that is patently propagandistic. Even if I do agreed with her in certain respects, if it doesn't show proper attribution (it's called scholarship) I find it deceptive. I think she was basically in the right place at the right time, and didn't present anything of a genuinely seminal nature. There is so little that constitutes "conservative" thought, however, I can see why she continues to be read.

Not that it makes a big difference, she turned out to be a really dreadful person as I heard a recent biography made clear, which doesn't say, or maybe actually does say something about her "philosophy" as I understand it.

I don't think Ryan is a contender. The more he is exposed, the more of a light weight he appears to be. Cantor could well be the threat. I heard recently he gave a presentation at Davos, which definitely isn't for lightweights. But I wonder if he wasn't the one who learned something.

I like your thoughtfulness.
She made the same error the socialists make. She bought into the notion that there is only the "reason" of the individualist vs the "emotionalism" of the collectivist to choose from and everyone must fall into one category or the other.

In fact individualism and collectivism are but the two sides of the same coin. Flip the coin; enough flips will sometimes get you a majority of one side, and sometimes get you a majority of the other. Such majorities are often used to 'prove' one way of organizing a society 'better' than the other.

Balderdash. We need individualism in a healthy society; we also need co-operative effort to accomplish things the individual finds difficult or impossible.

Both are needed. Not just individualism - not just co-operation. Both. Instead of this stupid war between the two, an understanding of social goals, economic goals, and the interaction between individualism and co-operation, is necessary. It is time people understood that they are NOT two opposing, mutually exclusive concepts UNLESS, as Rand does, and as Marx does, one side of the discussion is taken to ridiculous extremes.

I, John Galt, say this.......

Thank you for this. I have tried for years to explain to people why I like Atlas Shrugged, which I first read when I was 20. Now, I will send them here.

I was raised by a controlling family who had me believing that it was my lot in life to take care of everyone else to my detriment. This book helped me to see that I counted. I might not be a genius, but there were whole layers of people that made what Hank and Dagny wanted to do possible, and I am one of those layers. Ayn Rand may not have been a wonderful person, but I'm not reading her diary every day and trying to emulate her, I read A.S. and try to live by the principles of John Galt. A healthy society has room for everyone in it.
A reasonable, well-presented look at the Rand phenomenon. I read AS as a young man, too. I think I also read The Fountainhead, but have little memory of the plot. In AS I enjoyed her melodramatic portrayal of a black-and-white ethic, as a story, but realized as the narrative moved along what was critically lacking, besides a nuanced look at society, was empathy. I was callow, but I knew at least empathy was a vital component of the human community.

I agree with Ben Sen that Ryan's future chances at the brass ring are less viable than Cantor's. But either is dangerous.
My response to Matt:

Now, I saw the empathy. They didn't want to exceed at the expense of anyone else. They wanted to be treated as intelligent humans who had worth, and that is how they treated the other people of worth, and by worth I mean integrity and intelligence. The people they scorned were the government types that were trying to make them produce without the means to do so. They were fully supportive of their employees, customers, and friends. Remember how Hank worked to make Reardon Metal "under the table" for the men who needed it? Remember how Dagny worked around the clock to build the Galt Line? Yes, they did it for their glory, but they also expected mankind to benefit from it. THAT is the difference between them and people like Paul Ryan. Ryan and his ilk don't care squat about mankind, except to bleed us dry. Galt and his friends knew that they needed mankind and that all of us could prosper together.
Exceptional writing! I, too, have a great affinity for alot of Rand's work, and I'm pretty liberal as well. I don't agree with her politics but I admire the subtext that threads itself through the dialogs and plots. She writes with the precision of a surgical knife, and the cut either hurts or heals depending on the individual. Her work has made a large impact on my worldview - sometimes challenging it, sometimes solidifying it.

Ryan WILL be a contender, I think, and it will be a mistake for us to underestimate his potential for election. If elected, he's going to make Bush the Second look like a genius.
Anthem is good, if derivative of Zamytin's We, but then, it is a great story, of a native Russian speaking woman going so far, and artist she was for sure.
I'm the opposite: a (semi) libertarian who can't stand her writing.
I wonder if any of those who've read Any Rand ever came across a small book - little more than a booklet - by her titled, "The Law" ?

I had a copy once and it may still be in my mixed up library somewhere but I've been told, by "experts" that she never wrote anything by that title. My understanding is that she wrote that as her very first book and that it was published by a friend of hers.

It outlined her philosophy in straightforward textbook manner. It was not a novel. I'd love to hear from anyone who has seen a copy of it......Sky
I read Rand's books years ago as a college student and loved them. I haven't read them since and haven't wanted to--probably a little afraid that I might still like them, but shouldn't. I'm sure they'd read differently at age 60 than at 19. It might be interesting.
Interesting discourse.
However I do wish I would see aphoristic synopsis as it remains unclear what your synthiesis is of near oppositional dynamic. Earlier I'd drafted comment for this fine post ultimately containing it in a rendering of my own. Also, Open Salon's Richard Erlich writes about Ayn Rand today. His work is titled 'Ayn Rand Will Enslave You!' I suspect divergence from Ms. Rand's diatribe would be punisable if taken seriously by a few more other than her somewhat bellicose adherents. At some crossing Ms. Rand inadvertently kept the throttle cranked and left the symbiotic empathy of humankind decoupled. That she 'endures' and has allowed any concept of individuality to be bastardized into dictates such as 'Citizens United' may in fact at some juncture hasten anarchy along with subsequent 'reaction'. My point is that rank
hypocrisy by would-be aristocrats does not survive the light of day nor the hope of progress and human decency.
See JP Hart's essay here:

Thanks JP.
huh, shes a topic lately on open salon, strange synchronicity.
Ive got a bunch of rand links & need to do another post on this sometime.
for a wild story read of her connection with Hickman in my blog/links....
[r] David, thank you!!! I have been intending to get to this blog. I love your analysis.

I think I once commented on an Ayn Rand blog a good while back. I first read the Fountainhead when I was late teens, early twenties iirc and LOVED it. I tend to have been raised with strong pressure to be altruistic so I liked the focus on yourself and your real wants and opinions and not be a sheeple message.

I thought she really was a fun romance kind of potboiler author and Howard Roark's entrance into the book, so compelling and swashbuckling. I liked her writing style.

I took issue, though, with the romantic rape scene. Re the author I thought, what the hell is wrong with this woman? She kind of implied that our uppity heroine wanted "it" but didn't realize she wanted "it"? WTF?

I liked the idea of a character like Ellsworth Toohey ramping up "cronyism" sinisterly and think of him kind of like a Rush Limbaugh. The Peter guy was like most politicians, impression management without much beneath and a horrible mother.

I think I pictured Roark more like a Ralph Nader individualist and iconoclast -- Nader in his early days was worshipped -- his Nader's raiders, etc. He was a real crusader who listened to his own drummer as Roark did in Rand's book.

That is why I was kind of dismayed the authoritarian following conservatives had glommed onto the books and Rand, with Rand's welcoming embrace apparently. Did they really think they were a bunch of Howard Roarks or John Galts???? Really????? I supposed they disdained the common "herds" of status quo followers as Rand had.

Didn't treacherous Alan Goldspan worship at her feet? Mr. Fraud will be Self-Correcting Eventually. Blecchhhhh. The master of economic mystification to idiot journalists and apparently politicians especially.

I read a bio of Rand a while back and she was fooling around with one of her followers who was married to another follower. He was a famous psychologist. Nathaniel Branden? As I was reading the bio the author of it disclosed that she, in fact, was the wife who was being cheated on. I dropped the book I was so shocked. The bio was pretty tame and respectful considering the scenario! WTF????

Years later I read Atlas Shrugged, carried it around and got through a lot on the subway after I'd come to NYC. I was startled when young men in their early twenties maybe would glance at the cover and give me a thumb's up as if I were part of a secret society. I would nod and smile, but was confused. None of my other books got that kind of enthusiasm from fellow passengers. I wondered if it was all part of the Randian philosophy that I only partially probably had grasped, the stuff I liked.

Helen Mirren played Rand in some movie. I didn't enjoy it iirc.

Sorry to go on so long. I haven't gotten to read the thread yet but I will soon. Loved your blog and thanks. I always wanted to explore the Rand experience with others.

best, libby
I'm always perplexed at the taboo on including her drug addiction in the discussion; same times as Kerouac, yet ... no mention.

Imagine, the young (It was largely about Oil!) Greenspan and the rest, peer pressured into chain smoking tweaking's mandatory companion nicotine, sitting, rapt, cross-legged on the floor, ashes and smoke everywhere, as they hailed her highness.

But, I'd be a junkie too if the Commies had done me like that, and, I must say, Russians are just the best writers if the rest of us are honest.
About 1/3 through your post I suspected your motivation for writing it. Your ending confirmed it. You preset it as some random subject you decided to analyze, but in fact you are scared. Scared your leftist president has gone too far. Your ending questions pose no conundrum to me. You asking how one commutes is parroting Obamas "you didn't build it".

Basically you are scared of Rand's world. And who ever said everyone has to be a genius to get by. Geniuses get by better. Get over it. People are not born equally. And there is no moral reason to make them equal.
Life is tough and unfair. You are a liberal cause you don't like that inconvenient truth.
One thing I know is that fear is the main thing wrong with this world. There is a dramatic difference between philosophy and dogma. Which one derives from fear?
see also ayn rand, hickman & a nuanced theory of regulation ... basically, from her posthumous notebooks, ayn rand was an apparent admirer of a serial killer of the time named Hickman.
actually, as for her worship of individualism, ayn rand should try Tantra. frankly, some of it sounds similar. the poor woman just couldnt find the real (anti-)religion in her lifetime. dont blame her. many never do. hey, she seemed to have a libido, & was interested in the theory and practice of nonmonogamy, so she couldnt have been all that bad. contrarianism and nonconformism manifests in many ways....
I worship Ayn Rand like a god! That's why I live in a cabin in the woods and avoid contact with the takers and communists that want to take my freedom away! I spend my days cleaning my guns naked while re-reading Atlas Shrugged over and over again. Personally, I think Paul Ryan is too liberal. Infrastructure? Ha! If I want a road, I'll build it myself.

I think you miss the true meaning of Ayn Rand. The meaning that is understood by the wise new conservative movement. The government is evil and anyone who isn't rich is a taker and a loser. We are the knowers of the truth that the mainstream media is hiding. For example, we know for a fact that Obama is a Muslim communist from Kenya who is being controled by Aliens from Area 51. The media is covering this up! Why? They are covering up the assault on my freedoms. True conservatives know that we are under assault 24/7. That's why we need to buy as many guns as possible. If you real Ayn Rand more carefully, you will understand this. Gotta go now and dust my huge supply of can goods and survivor seeds.
My own take on this, for what it's worth ...