I should note at the outset of this piece that many conservatives properly owe a debt of thought to Ayn Rand. Rand’s attacks against the excesses of liberalism are some of the most cogent that have ever been penned; much of Rand’s writing is dedicated to the laudable principle that industry and ingenuity should be rewarded and slothfulness should be punished. That said, while Rand was unquestionably an enemy of liberalism, she is Exhibit 1 in illustrating the principle that the enemy of my enemy is not always my friend.
It is one thing to tip an acknowledging nod towards Rand’s influence on conservatives, particularly young conservatives. However, it is another thing entirely to find allegedly grown and serious men worshiping her philosophy devoutly. For instance, according to this Daily Beast article (which I guess must be taken with an appropriate measure of salt given the source), Tea Party messiah Paul Ryan describes himself as a “Rand nut” and goes so far as force his staffers to read Rand’s tracts. Furthermore, FreedomWorks President and would-be Tea Party leader Matt Kibbe is likewise a proud Rand devotee who has gushingly called the upcoming Atlas Shrugged movie (which by all accounts from the previews looks to be equal parts camp and trainwreck) “an important Tea Party movie” and urged Tea Partiers everywhere to see the movie.
While Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy had many useful things to say about liberalism, when applied as a positive philosophy to life, it leads to results just as monstrous as communism. No one who, as a mature adult, espouses it without reservation should be taken seriously or considered a leader of conservative thought. And, although I am admittedly not plugged in to the Tea Pary movement, I would wager that a vast majority of its rank and file members would be surprised to learn that the movement is supposedly animated by an atheistic and rabidly pro-choice materialist.
The first and most obvious objection to coopting conservatism in the name of Rand’s objectivism is that Rand herself rejected conservatism. She hated religion and all founding traditions. Anything that stood in the way of the accumulation of wealth and pleasure (for the few in this world who are fortunate enough to be beautiful and talented) is to be rejected. As Whittaker Chambers noted long ago in what is still the definitive repudiation of Rand, in this Rand was in fact not meaningfully different from the Marxism she sought to repudiate:
So the Children of Light win handily by declaring a general strike of brains, of which they have a monopoly, letting the world go, literally, to smash. In the end, they troop out of their Rocky Mountain hideaway to repossess the ruins. It is then, in the book’s last line, that a character traces in the air, “over the desolate earth,” the Sign of the Dollar, in lieu of the Sign of the Cross, and in token that a suitably prostrate mankind is at last ready, for its sins, to be redeemed from the related evils of religion and social reform (the “mysticism of mind” and the “mysticism of muscle”).
That Dollar Sign is not merely provocative, though we sense a sophomoric intent to raise the pious hair on susceptible heads. More importantly, it is meant to seal the fact that mankind is ready to submit abjectly to an elite of technocrats, and their accessories, in a New Order, enlightened and instructed by Miss Rand’s ideas that the good life is one which “has resolved personal worth into exchange value,” “has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash-payment.’” The author is explicit, in fact deafening, about these prerequisites. Lest you should be in any doubt after 1168 pages, she assures you with a final stamp of the foot in a postscript: “And I mean it.” But the words quoted above are those of Karl Marx. He, too, admired “naked self-interest” (in its time and place), and for much the same reasons as Miss Rand: because, he believed, it cleared away the cobwebs of religion and led to prodigies of industrial and cognate accomplishment.
As Chambers pointed out, this sort of inspired naked atheistic matieralism that brooks no dissent and seeks to level the entire world before it inevitably leads to disaster, whether animated by Marx or Rand:
Of course, Miss Rand nowhere calls for a dictatorship. I take her to be calling for an aristocracy of talents. We cannot labor here why, in the modern world, the pre-conditions for aristocracy, an organic growth, no longer exist, so that impulse toward aristocracy always emerges now in the form of dictatorship.
Nor has the author, apparently, brooded on the degree to which, in a wicked world, a materialism of the Right and a materialism of the Left first surprisingly resemble, then, in action, tend to blend each with each, because, while differing at the top in avowed purpose, and possibly in conflict there, at bottom they are much the same thing. The embarrassing similarities between Hitler’s National Socialism and Stalin’s brand of Communism are familiar. For the world, as seen in materialist view from the Right, scarcely differs from the same world seen in materialist view from the Left. The question becomes chiefly: who is to run that world in whose interests, or perhaps, at best, who can run it more efficiently?
Something of this implication is fixed in the book’s dictatorial tone, which is much its most striking feature. Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!” The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too (in the total absence of any saving humor), in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture — that Dollar Sign, for example. At first, we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive. Soon we suspect something worse. We suspect that this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house. A tornado might feel this way, or Carrie Nation.
In truth, Rand’s philosophy, taken to its logical conclusion, was so monstrous that she was unable to live it personally even though she boldly and often claimed that she did. As Charles Murray (who is a Rand fan) notes, there is much to admire (for some people) in her works and novels; however, her philosophy is simply not something that can be consistently lived, and to try is to invite a life of misery and madness.
I would certainly not begrudge anyone who enjoyed Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead. I myself read them as a teenager and enjoyed both, and to this day they are two of the books which most encapsulate what is wrong with liberalism today. The concern I have – and the concern which it seems to me many rank and file Tea Party members should have – is that many of the self-appointed leading lights of the Tea Party movement have apparently undertaken to uncritically appoint Rand’s philosophy as a guiding principle of the Tea Party movement. Rand’s philosophy undoubtedly contains some wheat, but the vast majority of it is inedible chaff, and a prescription for the death of the traditions and institutions that make America great. One need look no farther than Rand’s open disdain for Reagan as a puppet of the “religious right” to understand that she does not speak for almost any self-identified conservative in this country. One wonders, then, why so many self-appointed “conservative” leaders seem determined to let her speak for them.