Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns, Oxford University Press, October, 2009
Several days back, Mark Levin, author of the bestselling book "Tyranny and Liberty", responded in the American Thinker to a somewhat critical review of his book in the Weekly Standard by Peter Berkowitz . Berkowitz's review and Levin's response, a debate in part over how firmly and consistently conservatives should resist the growing power of the state, are a suitable backdrop for considering a new biography of Ayn Rand by University of Virginia History Professor Jennifer Burns.
For Rand, more even than Levin, was a purist, and brooked no moderation around the edges of the philosophy she developed, which came to be known as objectivism. Rand challenged critics and dissenters to prove her ideas wrong, and thrilled by the challenge of taking on all comers in debates on her ideas. Her life was one of intellectual battles, including a fight to be acknowledged for her achievements in developing her new philosophy. Many of the leaders on the right who were her contemporaries, such as William F. Buckley, had no use for her. Buckley, who worked to link his Christian beliefs to the conservative movement, hated Rand's unadulterated atheism. Literary snobs thought her novels were badly written. Academics never took her seriously.
But many readers did.
Burns, who is not an objectivist, spent 8 years researching the development of Rand's thinking and principles, and she has produced a terrific book -- a serious consideration of Rand's ideas, and her role in the conservative movement of the past three quarters of a century, that is empty of academic jargon and accessible to those unfamiliar with Rand's life or ideas.
The book is an intellectual biography, rather than a month by month catalogue of what happened in Rand's life. Burns does not focus on Rand's romantic relationships with Nathaniel Branden, as have many other books or movies about her life. Burns describes the battles Rand fought with herself and others, while writing her two key novels, "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged", very lengthy novels that took 5 and 12 years, respectively to complete. Burns describes these books as the "gateway drug to life on the right" for young conservatives for decades. This is not meant as an attack, but to describe the power of Rand's ideas and the hold she maintained over her followers (at least those who stayed with her).
Burns is honest about contradictions that plagued Rand. For example, she was a vigorous proponent of reason and individualism, but among her followers, criticism was not a route to the inner circle, and was viewed as disloyalty, which could lead to a lifetime freeze-out in relations. The meetings of the "Collective" (Nathaniel Branden and his wife Barbara, Alan Greenspan, and select others) on Saturday nights at her New York apartment took on cult-like qualities (a religion of sorts?).
Burns concludes her introduction to the book with this line:
"But objectivism as a philosophy left no room for elaboration ,extension, or interpretation, and as a social world, it excluded growth, change or development."
One could argue that since Rand's death in 1982, the movement she founded has had more room for elaboration, extension and growth (and debate), without her direct hold on defining for her followers what was true and what was not. And today Rand is as hot as she has ever been. Her books will likely sell more copies in 2008 and 2009 than in any other two year period since she wrote them.
"Atlas Shrugged" may finally come to the screen, after half a century of talk about making such a movie. Some of her ideas and arguments increasingly are being used in the current political battles, including by Levin, who rails against the Obama administration but also against the "neo-Statists", those who refuse to fight the government encroachment on first principles, and in effect, give up the fight by conceding far too big a role for government.
Rand was a 12 year old in St. Petersburg, Russia, when the Bolsheviks seized her father's pharmacy shop in 1917, in the interest of the state and its people. Decades of work and achievement by her father were destroyed by the state in a matter of minutes. Rand never forgot the event, which caused her family to experience greatly diminished economic circumstances, and eventually led to her move to America in 1925. Her contempt for a government that takes property from its rightful owners to give to others, never waned.
It is no surprise that Rand's books are a counsel for those seething with resentment at what appears to be the third major step in the shift of the American economy from one that respected and encouraged private enterprise, to a Euro-style nanny state. In the current administration, business people are regarded as something close to evil and predatory, needing above all to be controlled and constrained (and taxed). And of course, there are virtually no business people in the Obama administration. In this new emerging national order, the state will become the principal judge of how the wealth and burdens of the society are distributed, rather than the market rewarding individuals who have earned their just rewards from consumers voluntarily exchanging money for their goods and services -- the product of their effort and achievement.
Rand fought the first two steps -- Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. While no single slogan has yet attached to Barack Obama's combination package of economic stimulus, cap and trade, and health care reform (this last better described as a government takeover of much of health care as a way station to single payer total government control), Rand, were she alive, would be a powerful voice in the current fight, helping to clarify the issues at stake, and focus the attack against the onslaught on capitalism, and individual liberty that is underway.
Rand despised government altruism -- spreading around the money it has taken from society's achievers, so as to redistribute the wealth, the argument Barack Obama made to Joe the Plumber in October, 2008. Rand was fiercely attached to the notion that individuals owned what they produced. If they wanted to be charitable (not prominent in her constellation of values), it was a personal decision, never one to be enforced by the state. It has been true for many years that Americans are far more personally charitable than their counterparts in the more statist European countries, where tax rates are higher (maybe not for long), and the state plays the role of the charitable donor.
Rand believed there was a role for government, but it was limited. National security of course was one function, but Rand opposed wars where America was not attacked. So World War II was a required war, Viet Nam was not.
Rand believed that state power inevitably would be used against the people, rather than for them. The market allocated better than any government could. At times, particularly early in her career, Rand seemed to have some faith in the wisdom and good sense of the crowd. In her later works, she adopted more of an elitist position, arguing on behalf of those who could harness reason best, and be society's great creators. Rand has always been a source of inspiration for entrepreneurs, both those who are homegrown ,and many who came to America seeking the freedom to succeed in a country where merit was rewarded, and barriers to success were far fewer than in most places abroad. The heroes of her novels, Howard Roark, and John Galt, were great individualists, creators and inventors, iconoclasts, who refused to play the game or compromise their personal vision. Rand would have despised the collaboration with the Obama administration of General Electric's CEO Jeff Immelt . She would caustically condemn him for sleeping with the enemy to score some dollars from the country's biggest buyer- the federal government, an easier route to quarterly earnings today than competing in the marketplace.
Caustic was a word easily associated with Rand. She refused to suffer fools (or those she regarded as such). She had a cold streak that turned off many former colleagues and friends. And she was certainly not a moderate, neither in tone, nor disposition. There is a comfort for the true believer -- integrity, adherence to first principles, consistency. But is it a path to political power? The conservative movement is now on the outside looking in. The statist party is on the verge of needing only a degree of consensus in the legislative sausage making process among elected officials of its own party, to transform the American economy in dramatic fashion. There is vigorous debate on this website, and others on the right, as to how this dreadful political situation occurred -- did conservatives abandon principle, and then suffer defeat, or did the conservative movement drive out too many who adhered to some , but not all of its messages?
Ayn Rand trusted ideas more than political parties. But for ideas to have impact, movements need to have political power. The Democrats have been better than the Republicans in recent years at selling their message and disguising their identity (Obama as the moderate post-racial candidate who would end the partisan wars in Washington) and expanding their tent, in order to win elections. They have run pro-life candidates, military veterans, and small government types in conservative leaning areas, so as to make characterizations of the statist nature of the Party more difficult. In the debate within the conservative movement, at the moment the purists seem to be winning, driving out those who cannot check off all the ideological boxes. It is, I think, a recipe for intellectual coherence, and continued electoral defeat.
Most Americans are not fascinated by politics, nor do they live and die with the daily news cycle. There are almost certainly more conservatives than liberals in America, but even within these groups, a small minority are really in the fight. There is, I think, a low level anxiety forming among many Americans, including a substantial number who voted for Obama, that the President is trying to do too much too soon, and should just focus on getting the economy turned around. Americans also have growing concerns about the enormous federal deficits, both this year and for years to come.
There is an opening for the GOP, by being the Party that is not going along with all this, and is trying to slow down the express train that is shaking up the country's basic economic structure. Offering alternative ideas would be nice too, but just saying no could have a lot of appeal in 2010.
But it is a mistake, I think, to believe that most Americans have bought into the conservative movement and its principles, as Levin or Rand might describe them. Conservatives have to reach new voters, or former supporters, to get another chance to govern . Moderation is a dirty word to some in the conservative movement. But to take advantage of the opportunity that may be there to win in 2010 and 2012, Republicans will have to be smart, and practical, not just pure.
And they must be appealing. To those in the middle of the American spectrum, a more moderate approach to governing, as opposed to Obama's crusade for big government, should be a winning message. Zealots have passionate supporters. But they are generally few in number. And they are rarely appealing to the tens of millions who vote.
Ayn Rand cared about the correctness of her ideas far more than she did for candidates or political parties. Rand's arguments and beliefs, in particular her defense of capitalism and the free enterprise system, are nicely explained in Burns' fine book, and can be used to shape the political debate for conservatives in the next few years. But if Republicans follow Rand's methods, and her exclusivity, they will remain in the wilderness.
Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent of American Thinker.