The Insidious Novels of Ayn Rand

Cover illustration for The Fountainhead

When I first started hearing the name Rand Paul, I thought that it was a political pundit’s joke. I thought the talk was about his father, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, not the man who last week became Kentucky’s Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. Since Ron Paul espouses certain libertarian principles, I assumed that people were calling him “Rand” to draw attention to his affinity with the ideas of novelist and political philosopher Ayn Rand.

Now that Rand Paul has made his own name for himself—he has fully embraced the populist right-wing Tea Party movement and has given them their greatest political victory so far—I no longer confuse him with his father. I’m pretty sure, however, that his father named him after the writer. [Correction: I have since learned that Rand is is short for Randall, a family name. Of course, Ron Paul still had extra reasons for liking the name.] Since this website examines influence of literature on life, today I look at the impact of Rand’s two best known novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957).

Rand’s novels are different than many others in that they seem to create proselytes. In that way they differ from great novels, which will transcend the politics of the author, just as a good reading of a classic will transcend the politics of the reader. An encounter between such a novel and such a reader will honor the complex psychological, social, aesthetic, and spiritual dimensions of life. Well-drawn characters are three-dimensional, and well-imagined conflicts resist facile solutions. A good novel will plunge us into the middle of this virtual reality, making us feel as though we are really there.  We feel that we must rise to meet the challenges placed before us.

My aim in this website is to help that process along. My operating premise is that the world will benefit greatly if we intelligently and sensitively reflect on our encounters with great works of literature and use them as guides for further action.

But Rand’s novels, as far as I can tell (I haven’t studied them in depth), don’t encourage complex readings. They give us genius heroes who are misunderstood and envied by the collective society around them. These heroes are envied because (Rand believes) collectivism attracts the mediocre, who find strength in numbers when they can’t compete as individuals. Sometimes the mediocre drag down the hero, as the architect Howard Roark is dragged down in The Fountainhead. In Atlas Shrugged, meanwhile, Rand indulges in the fantasy that “you’ll miss us geniuses when we’re gone” (she includes herself in the “we”). In the book she considered her masterpiece, she has the most productive members of society withdraw and then, when civilization is on the verge of collapse, ride in to create a society where individual merit and enlightened self interest rule.

Preaching “objectivism,” Rand is suspicious of anything that is emotional or mystical. Genius is a clear-cut measurement, and lesser beings should just get out of the way. Or rather, they should follow along. We’d all be better off if we let ourselves be guided by these masters of the universe, these Nietzschean supermen.

Rand’s ideas are not entirely without merit. They make a good philosophical challenge to communitarian ideas (including Christian love). They force me to examine my empathy for the downtrodden and to be clear-headed when I propound social solutions for the world’s problems. I note that the wonderful William Kristof of the New York Times, who is as bleeding heart as they come, had a column in yesterday’s paper talking about how the poor in developing nations could do a lot more for their children if they spent less of their income on booze and cigarettes. We just enable them if we’re not smart with our aid, he writes. It’s a point that Randians would make.

A problem with Rand’s ideas can be seen in her novels. There is no genuine dramatic tension. Geniuses are good, mediocre enviers are bad. We are not dealing here with, say,  Antigone, where one can understand both sides of an irreconcilable clash. To get swept up in Rand’s novels, therefore, is to surrender to adolescent wish fulfillment. The reader is able to identify with the genius hero (a boost to our egos), look down with contempt at any one who doesn’t appreciate his genius (who amongst us has not felt properly appreciated?), and engage in a self-pity party (or in Atlas Shrugged, an “I told you so” party) when the blinkered masses (other people) don’t pay proper homage to us. The books don’t call for us to grow up.

I think Ayn Rand’s novels appeal to readers who are insecure in their identities (including young people, who at least have an excuse). A note to those who fancy themselves as carriers of the Rand flame: a real Ayn Rand hero wouldn’t see the point of reading an Ayn Rand novel.

Unfortunately, some Rand readers have gone on to positions of power. One of these, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, maintained almost up to the 2008 meltdown that markets had the capacity to self-regulate. Another Rand fan is Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court justice most ready to break with precedent and one who consistently favors the free use of power. (In this he is like Roark, who has contempt for architectural tradition.)

I see that Arthur Brooks from the American Enterprise Institute, a Randian organization, has a major article in yesterday’s Washington Post Outlook section blaming our economic woes on too much government control, not too little. In trenchant either/or language reminiscent of Rand, Brooks says that we have a new culture war and we must take sides:

This is not the culture war of the 1990s. It is not a fight over guns, gays or abortion. Those old battles have been eclipsed by a new struggle between two competing visions of the country’s future. In one, America will continue to be an exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise — limited government, a reliance on entrepreneurship and rewards determined by market forces. In the other, America will move toward European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, a managed economy and large-scale income redistribution. These visions are not reconcilable. We must choose.

In Brooks’s view, Obama’s 2009 Commencement speech at Arizona State that students should turn their back on ruthless competition and embrace service is “remarkable” (not in a good way). Or as he puts it:

I appreciate the sentiment that money does not buy happiness. But for the president of the United States to actively warn young adults away from economic ambition is remarkable. And he makes clear that he seeks to change our culture.

No doubt Brooks would also find it remarkable for a president to say, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” (Perhaps Brooks would say instead, “Ask what you can do for yourself.”) And no doubt he’d blame the Gulf oil spill and the West Virginia mining disaster on too much government oversight. And the recession on the fact that tax cuts for the rich haven’t been generous enough.

Perhaps Brooks has become trenchant because public policy has been tending in his direction since Ronald Reagan (even Bill Clinton cut back on welfare support), leading to a series of disasters. Or would he argue that his ideas aren’t paying off because we haven’t been practicing them in their pure form or because we haven’t been going far enough with them?  If so, he should be careful.  That was also the Communists’ excuse for the failures of the Soviet Union and China. For that matter, it was the excuse of liberals in the 1970’s about why welfare wasn’t putting an end to urban crime. Ideas never get practiced in their pure state. That’s why ideologues, including Randians, can always maintain they’re right.

Incidentally, I’m not surprised that Brooks would want to displace the old culture wars with a new one. Economic libertarians were never very comfortable about their alliance with Christian conservatives (and vice versa). Each swallowed qualms about the other in order to have access to political power. I think the Randians came out ahead.

Without getting further into this debate, I recommend “caveat emptor” when entering the novels, and the ideas, of Ayn Rand.  Treat them as a certain thread in the American fabric that goes back to days of the early immigrants who wanted to be left alone. But don’t think of them as solutions.  We are living in a far too complicated and interconnected world for laissez-faire economics and unthinking use of natural resources to bail us out. Granted, balances must be struck between state regulation and individual freedom. Real adults know there has to be give-and-take to make a world. Ideologues are singularly inept at negotiating those shoals.

Update: I note that, in his column today, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douhat expresses some of these same criticisms of Rand Paul, libertarianism, and ideologues in general.

Wonderful quote: I’ve always enjoyed the John Rogers quotation about Rand and Tolkien:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

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5 Trackbacks

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