At least one part of the American economy has enjoyed a boom since the financial crisis: the estate of Ayn Rand and sales of her dystopic door stopper novel, Atlas Shrugged.
Until recently interest in Rand represented a small subculture in conservative intellectual life—small, perhaps, because as long as Rand lived, she belligerently chase away anyone who disagreed, even slightly, with her “philosophy” of Objectivism. Rand denounced libertarians as “a monstrous, disgusting bunch of people” and conservatives as “futile, impotent and, culturally, dead.”
In return, critics found Rand’s declaration that “The only philosophical debt I can acknowledge is to Aristotle,” laughable. The revelations of Rand’s destructive affair with Nathanial Branden undercut Rand’s writings on “rationally” practicing sex and love. Her acolytes were called “crazy” on the rare occasions they interacted with the outside world.
But since the financial crisis, all has changed. The Ayn Rand Institute, which owns the Rand copyrights, claims that sales of Atlas Shrugged tripled between 2009 and 2008. The Economist observed the sharpest spikes in Rand sales occurred when bailouts or stimulus bills were in the news. And very suddenly, prominent national conservatives have overcome their repugnance for Rand’s militant atheism to endorse her vision – and her politics.
The Wall Street Journal declared in an Op-Ed by Stephen Moore—its senior economics writer—in January 2009 that Rand’s work had moved “From Fiction to Fact.” Rush Limbaugh gave monologues that quoted Rand and called her “Brilliant.” Among politicians, Ron Paul has described Atlas Shrugged as “telling the truth.” Amity Shlaes tried to map the characters of Atlas Shrugged onto the real world in a piece for Bloomberg.
Who is Ayn Rand? For conservatives she is no longer the author who defended The Fountainhead’s rape scene as “rape by engraved invitation” but the prophetic writer on the Obama Presidency: “We are living in an Ayn Rand novel” argues conservative rising star Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.
Amity Shlaes’s piece in Bloomberg argues that Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, foreshadows events of the modern day. To Shlaes, Rand’s writings about currency sound similar to the problems of the weak dollar and that her “lecture on the unreliable dollar sounds like it could have been scripted by Zhou Xiaochuan, or some other furious Chinese central banker” – omitting to mention that Rand advocated the Gold Standard and opposed all central banks.
Shales suggests that sales of Atlas Shrugged correspond to increases in the tax burden. She states that it is “interesting” to “compare sales of ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ provided by the Ayn Rand Institute, to Internal Revenue Service distribution tables.” She provides two-and-a-half data points to support this thesis:
In 1986, a year when “Atlas Shrugged” sold between 60,000 and 80,000 copies, the top 1 percent of earners paid 26 percent of the [federal personal] income tax. By 2000, that 1 percent was paying 37 percent [of the federal personal income tax], and “Atlas Shrugged” sales were at 120,000. By 2006, the top 1 percent carried 40 percent of the burden [of federal personal income tax].
(Shlaes doesn’t say what sales were in 2006)
In a piece for the Claremont Review of Books about Rand’s resurgence, Charles Murray cites the oft-quoted factoid that Atlas Shrugged ranked number two after the Bible in a Book-of-the-Month Club survey asking which book most influenced readers lives. (Murray omits the more amusing ‘statistic’ that Rand is the most popular author among Playboy models.) Murray also compares two listings released by the Modern Library of the most important books of the 20th century. On a list selected by “luminaries,” Atlas Shrugged did not appear at all, but it topped the list selected by open balloting.
Rand’s popularity tells us two things about the state of modern conservatism.
First, it suggests that Rand’s atheism and permissive social views are no longer deal-breakers among conservative thought leaders. Jennifer Burns, the author of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, has explored Rand’s influence through the years. She told FrumForum that while religion had been a crucial issue for William F. Buckley and the conservatives of the 1970s, “someone like Glenn Beck isn’t going to argue about the existence of God or the need for religion. Beck and Limbaugh can use the parts of Rand they want to use and not engage the rest.”
Second and more troubling, the conservative rediscovery of Rand signals an increasing conservative divergence from mainstream America. Conservatives falsely assume that because more copies of Rand’s books are being sold, that everyone who reads them agrees with her. Conservatives are buying into Rand’s extreme views without understanding why many people—and not only liberals—revile her.
While Whittaker Chambers’ famous 1957 condemnation of Rand may sound over-torqued half a century later: “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!” It remains true that Ayn Rand seems to revel in the death and destruction that follows by disregarding her philosophy: most famously in the ghoulish scene in Atlas Shrugged where Rand details the suffocation of the passengers on a train as it enters a tunnel. Rand explains how everyone on the train deserved to die because they held incorrect ideas:
“It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.”
Rand proceeds to coldly condemn the ‘inexcusable’ intellectual errors of sixteen men and women on the train. A sample:
“The man in Seat 5, Car No.7, was a worker who believed that he had ‘a right’ to a job, whether his employer wanted him or not. The woman in Roomette 6, Car no. 8, was a lecturer who believed that, as a consumer, she had ‘a right’ to transportation, whether the railroad people wished to provide it or not.”
And so on for 1,000 words. She blithely writes of their suffocation and death:
“These passengers were awake; there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas.”
Rand’s writing carries other elements of disdain and malevolence. Atlas Shrugged concludes with Rand’s heroes safe in Colorado while the more normal Eddie Willers is left stranded and alone in the middle of the desert. One of the many sins of the villain of her other famous novel, The Fountainhead, is that he turns what ought to be an architectural work of art into a care center for “subnormal children.” Rand writes how evil it was that art was wasted on these unworthy sub-lives as she describes “their eyes staring vacantly, the stare of death before which no world existed.” (This episode that seems to show Nietzsche’s influence on Rand.)
Perhaps the worst oversight in all this is not ask whether a work of fiction with intentionally unrealistic characters is a helpful guide to making public policy.
Ayn Rand’s closest followers, the Objectivists, have noticed the new openness to their guru. The Ayn Rand Center’s page for Tea Party Activists makes no reference to her atheism, or the Objectivist position in favor of open immigration. Esoteric topics such as Rand’s belief that Immanuel Kant was “the most evil man in mankind’s history” get short shrift. The recently opened Ayn Rand Center in Washington DC now trains Objectivists to appear in the media. The Center’s President, Yaron Brook, has become a common guest on Glenn Beck’s program. The Center has also worked with the FreedomWorks and the Competitive Enterprise Institute on Tea Party themed panels and seminars.
For their long term strategy of outreach, the Ayn Rand Institute has sent more then one million free copies of Ayn Rand’s novels for into high school classrooms that request her books, a process that has helped increase her name recognition while also running a popular high school essay contest.
When asked about his goals, Yaron Brook sounds uncharacteristically ecumenical for an Objectivist. “I’m not going to turn them all into Objectivists, but if I can move the debate, if I can change the terms of the debate, if we can have an impact on them, then I think we need to do it.” As Burns notes, Objectivists “Know better now” than to go to Tea Parties and boast: “We have a new epistemology.” As long as conservatives are more open to them, who can blame them for acting in their rational self-interest?
Follow Noah Kristula-Green on Twitter: @noahkgreen
UPDATE: FrumForum contributor Mytheos Holt contends that Rand’s influence is being overstated:
The revival of Randianism has been greatly exaggerated. Noah Kristula-Green’s recent piece is but one example of that influence. While it is true that Rand’s sales have spiked, and while it is also true that anyone who reads Atlas Shrugged will see frightening similarities between the world depicted there and the world we currently live in, it is neither fair nor accurate to claim that Rand has been accepted at the table of conservatism as a full member.
This is not to say that her books have served no purpose on the Right. Morton Blackwell at the Leadership Institute recommends “Atlas Shrugged” on his Read to Lead list, but includes the following caveat:
“It must also be said, however, that the militantly atheistic Rand had an unrealistic view of human nature and little appreciation for cultural values. Most people, however mesmerized by her they may be in their youth, outgrow Rand’s philosophy, which Burke might have described as a theoretical construct rather than an application of the accumulated wisdom of mankind.”
This, I suspect, is the reaction most conservatives, Tea Partiers and otherwise sympathetic but non-objectivist readers have to the book. Speaking for myself, I know many people who skipped the infamous fifty page “Galt speech” but enjoyed the rest of the novel for its value as a thriller and for its ability to make any reader “forever immune to the enticements of socialism,” as Blackwell puts it.
And furthermore, at the risk of being overly self-referential, I consider myself living proof of Blackwell’s caveat. I first tried to read “Atlas” after being enchanted by “The Fountainhead” and “Anthem.” Prior to the experience, I considered myself a die-hard Randian. However, I couldn’t make it past page 550 because of how repetitive the novel was, and how exceedingly heavy-handed it was with its message. I have since read through the whole thing, and consider it to be an above-average thriller, a mildly interesting philosophical statement, and a brilliant piece of propaganda. To treat conservatives as having “accepted” Rand as Green does, however, requires one to assume conservative readers to be so credulous that they cannot differentiate the elements of a book they agree with from the valuable elements of the message. Rand has, and still does influence society in a profound way by serving as a gateway drug to the Right*. But once the gateway has passed, more sensible conservatives tend to see the light.
*The description of Rand as a “Gateway drug to the Right” was coined in the opening of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns.