Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul | By Gary Weiss | St Martin’s Press | 304 pages, $24.99
Ayn Rand, the GOP’s crotchety, misanthropic little immigrant grandmother, is hot again. Her books are selling well; her works are animating the ideas of certain Republican congressmen. Even Brad Pitt and Oliver Stone said they were interested in making a movie version of The Fountainhead. Fox News TV personalities John Stossel and Sean Hannity enthusiastically promoted the cinema version of her most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, which came out last year on Tax Day. (Though the movie tanked, its producers are still planning to shoot Atlas Shrugged: Part 2.)
Rand, author and ideologue, inspired great devotion and derision for her best-selling novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Ridiculed for their wooden drama and characterizations, readers nevertheless loved the novels for the ideas contained therein. Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, is based on the idea that personal happiness (or self-interest) is the supreme moral code; the only organization of society consistent with this ethical system is unfettered capitalism.
Though her philosophy has been largely ignored by the academy, it’s been consistently popular among members of marginal groups: precocious teenagers, Cato Institute employees, the Canadian rock band Rush, and, most recently, the Tea Party. In Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul, Gary Weiss chronicles the growing influence of Rand on America, who Ayn Rand’s followers are, and what they’re doing to the United States.
Weiss, an investigative journalist formerly with Business Week*, has made a career exploring the underside of American finance. In this book he looks at the rise of Objectivism from its early days—when Rand’s small cadre of followers regularly gathered at the author’s midtown Manhattan apartment— through the rise of Rand acolyte Alan Greenspan, up to today, where John Galt signs predominate at Tea Party rallies, the Republican Party simply refuses to govern or increase taxes, and certain congressmen (e.g. Paul Ryan) propose austerity budgets influenced by the dead novelist.
Such an exploration, understandably, takes one fairly seriously down the rabbit hole of Objectivist ideas. It was a fascinating trip. I had no idea, for instance, about the weird, communist-style purges that took place in the movement when Rand was still alive. She had a loyal group of followers but she wasn’t terribly loyal to them. Objectivists denounced and then ignored members of the group who disagreed with her. Once people were removed from her inner circle (which they ironically nicknamed “the collective”) they simply ceased to exist; they were never to be mentioned again. Nathaniel Branden and his wife, who were initially very prominent Objectivists, were removed and vilified when Branden simply decided to stop sleeping with Rand. The purges continue; today there are different sects of Objectivists, including the Atlas Society, which is opposed by the main, de jure Objectivists, affiliated with the Ayn Rand Institute. Objectivists and Libertarians also are bitter rivals.
It’s a pretty complicated journey, following Objectivism through the nooks and crannies of its intellectual evolution, though Weiss does a reasonably good job making it entertaining. The story of the early days of the Rand’s movement is fascinating. What he’s perhaps not so good at, however, is explaining the actual influence of Rand on contemporary America. At times he seems to argue that Rand is almost singlehandedly influencing most of the reactionary policy ideas we see today. Privatization of social security: Rand. Opposition to Obamacare: Rand. Hostility to consumer protections: Rand. Lack of sympathy for environmental safeguards: Rand. Support for weirdly low tax rates for the American superrich: that’s also Rand.
This isn’t entirely convincing. We’ve certainly seen a lot of signs at rallies, but how much does this movement really matter? Understandably Weiss spends a great number of pages on Alan Greenspan, who makes up a serious portion of Weiss’s proof of Objectivists’ influence. The man’s life makes a good story, but the extent to which he functioned as an agent of Randian ideology is difficult to determine. Greenspan helped advocate for limited government intervention in policies that helped rich people. Rand loved rich people. Ergo, Greenspan’s vast power helped to put Rand’s principles into practice.
But this is too simple an explanation. Last year, Ayn Rand Institute president Yaron Brook apparently said that Rand “would have never advocated for the kind of policies Greenspan instituted. By holding interest rates for two-and-a-half years below the rate of inflation, [Greenspan] encouraged the debt and credit boom we’re suffering the consequence of” today. Greenspan, “betrayed” Rand’s teachings, Brook complained, in his efforts to encourage economic growth in the aftermath of 9/11.