Ayn Rand's (1905–82) philosophy of rational selfishness, limited government, individualism, and moral capitalism, expressed in her bestselling novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), has been deeply influential on libertarian and conservative thought. Rand's atheism made her a controversial figure among religious conservatives, but many shared her free market views and came to accept her argument that capitalism was a moral system. Although she denounced libertarians for their lack of principles, Rand was a primary inspiration for the 1970s libertarian movement. Her longevity as a popular political philosopher has been remarkable. In 2009, nearly 30 years after her death, Atlas Shrugged sold a record-breaking 500,000 copies and she was embraced by the right-leaning Tea Party movement.
Ayn Rand was born in 1905 as Alissa Rosenbaum, the eldest daughter of a prosperous Jewish family in St. Petersburg, Russia. She developed a lifelong hatred of communism when her father's chemistry shop was nationalized during the Bolshevik revolution. In 1926, Rosenbaum immigrated to the United States with the help of relatives, changing her name to Ayn Rand. She sought her fortune first in Hollywood, working briefly as a screenwriter. The influence of Hollywood can be seen in the cinematic quality of her fiction, which is epic in scope and marked by glamorous, stylized heroes and villains.
In 1940, Rand volunteered for Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate for U.S. president. Always anti-Communist, Rand now began to worry about “collectivism,” a more general term for ideas and policies she thought threatened individual freedom. She threaded these ideas into her bestselling 1943 novel, The Fountainhead, the story of an independent architect who refuses to compromise. A coded political parable that attacked the collectivism of the New Deal, The Fountainhead earned Rand an important place in the growing conservative movement.
In the following years, Rand worked to formalize her ideas into a system she called objectivism, turning from a former interest in Friedrich Nietzsche to Aristotle. Focusing now on rationality, Rand strove to create a new secular philosophical system that would justify capitalism by promoting the virtue of rational selfishness. Rand argued that unregulated, laissez-faire capitalism is a moral system because it enables the rational individual to reap the full benefits of his or her labor. By contrast, redistribution of wealth through taxes or welfare programs is immoral because it penalizes the productive and rewards the unproductive. Rand argued that a morality of altruism underlay modern society and caused most of the world's problems.
She expressed these ideas in another bestselling novel, Atlas Shrugged (1957), a dystopian narrative of America brought to the brink of ruin by socialist policies. Atlas Shrugged emphasized the contribution of uniquely gifted individuals. Rand's hero, John Galt, convinces business leaders and artists to go “on strike” until their talents are adequately rewarded. In a society ruled by altruism, Rand suggests, there will be no producers left.
Panned by critics, Atlas Shrugged was feverishly embraced by a rising generation of conservatives and libertarians. Among her most devoted fans was Alan Greenspan, the future head of the Federal Reserve Board, who was attracted to her free market politics and her clear-cut ideology. Through the New York–based Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI), Rand and others offered courses in her philosophy. She promoted her political views through a newsletter, several bestselling nonfiction books, and frequent appearances in the media. In 1968, Rand folded NBI and broke with her closest collaborators. Despite Rand's sudden exit from public life, her ideas continued to circulate widely among libertarians. A number of her students and admirers went on to careers in politics and political activism, continuing her influence in conservative and libertarian circles.
Rand has been harshly criticized for both her ideas and her actions. After Rand's death, Barbara Branden revealed Rand's liaison with her husband Nathaniel Branden and her use of amphetamines. She and others described a toxic atmosphere of cultlike conformity surrounding the novelist and argued that Rand's personal failings were symptomatic of flaws in objectivist philosophy that led to dogmatism, rigidity, and an overemphasis on rationality at the expense of emotion.
From afar, critics have attacked Rand for lacking kindness or empathy and for promoting the strong over the weak. Even some who agree with her platform of unregulated capitalism and limited government deplore the harshness of her fiction and her rejection of religious values. Philosophers have scorned Rand's objectivism, and literary critics scoff at her novels for their cardboard characters and black-and-white worldview. Yet Rand's celebration of the individual and her critique of government continue to resonate with an ever growing readership.
See also American Political Thought; Anarchism; Capitalism; Conservatism; Economics and Political Thought; Individualism; Libertarianism; Neoconservatism; Political Philosophy and Political Thought; Psychoanalysis and Political Thought; State, Theories of the; Twentieth-Century Political Thought; Utopianism
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