Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (Postscript) pt. 1

POSTSCRIPT:  Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP?


I recently had three doses of Ayn Rand:  listening to a panel discussion on The Diane Rehm Show, an interview with Jennifer Burns on The Colbert Report, and watching The Fountainhead.  The two discussions raised a very interesting question, which the movie began to address.  These three together prompted me to reexamine my earlier discussions on Ayn Rand and the modern conservative movement in the U.S.

The Diane Rehm Show focused on Rand’s influence on Republican politicians, including Paul Ryan.[1]  The panelists discussed Rand’s philosophy, the various elements of it and whether she would support Paul Ryan today.  Jennifer Burns, author of Goddess of the Marketplace, recounted Rand’s rejection of Ronald Reagan and her warning people against him, comparing this to the similar views expressed by Ryan.  Asked whether she would support Paul Ryan, Burns replied:


I think it’s a pretty safe bet that she would not. We have a lot of evidence, as much evidence as one can have from a deceased historical figure on views of analogist politicians. So one of the last things she ever published was a denunciation of Ronald Regan and it was specifically because Ronald Regan mixed religion and politics.

And because he supported the abolition of abortion so he was pro-life and she wrote a letter to her followers saying, “Reagan is the worst kind of conservative. He’s a dangerous man who’s mixing religion and politics, who doesn’t understand the fundamental importance of the separation of church and state. Don’t vote for him and don’t support him.” So I think she would look at Paul Ryan in much the same way as someone who, while he sounds close to her in economic and fiscal matters, has really missed a lot of her larger messages about the proper role of government.



Journalist David Weigel, asked about the way conservatives pick and choose the elements they like from Rand, had a slightly different view.  He said:



There are no avowed atheist Republicans in Congress. I think in the speech Jennifer’s talking about, which she — what Rand referred to as the god-family tradition swamp which is not something that you ever hear a Republican say. The way they square this circle is by saying, government when it intervenes is going to mess up. When it intervenes in charity it’s going to screw that up.

But take government out of the way and churches are going to fill the gap. Churches are going to provide what poor people need, individual relationships are going to pull people out of bad economic straits. That’s how they get around and I like the way that Jennifer’s putting that. I think it’s coherent in a couple of ways. It’s not a coherent adaptation to everything that she says but that’s not uncommon in politics. I mean, a lot of politics is aphorism and taking a quote and using it for your own purposes.

And that’s, you know, when Ryan talks about Rand, it’s not in the greatest detail. He just mentions John Galt’s speech, some passages in the novel about the meaning of money. They’re interesting, but I think, when people refer to “Atlas Shrugged,” they’re referring to a novel that takes quite some time to read, it’s a 1,000 pages long and the way that it gets into politics is just in a couple metaphors and analogies. So I think it’s fair they take some of that and just, you know, staple it to the other things they believe as religious, you know, as religiously influenced conservative politicians.



That is, of course, the question I asked at first:  is it legitimate to take elements of Rand’s philosophy, and not others?  Is it legitimate to borrow from Rand’s philosophy and Christianity, and claim to be honest to both?

It is not necessary to accept everything a philosopher says to feel indebted to that philosopher, or to reasonably claim to be a student.  Sometimes, there may be some minor part of the philosopher’s thought one chooses to ignore.  There have been many who thought of themselves as Platonists or Neoplatonists, but not all endorsed Plato’s ideas on censoring the arts.  Other times, a philosopher may have large parts of his or her thought that can be detached.  Many thinkers are influenced by Kant’s ethics, without having any interest in his epistemology.  But there are key concepts that are really essential to a philosopher’s thought, such that if one of those concepts is missing the whole thought is changed into something else.  If you decide you really like Aquinas, except for the Aristotleanism in his thought, you aren’t really a Thomist; you’re an Augustinian.  Returning to the question of Rand’s thought, what is truly essential, truly foundational in her thought, such that if it is removed the whole thing becomes something else?  What happens to her thought, if you do try to adopt Objectivism without that key element?

In watching The Fountainhead, I could see why someone like Paul Ryan might think he could just pick parts from Rand willy-nilly without the whole thing collapsing.  In a piece of philosophical fiction like that, there is dramatic development rather than systematic development.  Just as the movie-makers chose to ignore the atheistic elements and to only vaguely hint at the rape scene, so too a reader might selectively choose which scenes and lines were personally interesting, while ignoring others.  The character of Howard Roark is very compelling, and in some ways admirable.  He is creative, he is true to himself and his principles and his art, he demands no break or mercy for himself.  He is hard on others but even harder on himself, insisting that he will neither exploit nor be exploited.  He is called “selfish” by others, and does not dispute the word; but his claim that all interactions between people should be free exchanges rather than any sort of compulsion is the opposite of what most of us normally mean by “selfishness.”[2]  The movie is a celebration of the importance and nobility of the individual creative spirit, and an indictment (if not a straw-man slander) of “collectivism” and the forces of conformity.

Philosophical fiction can be very valuable.  It gives the writer the opportunity to present the abstract concepts in a more concrete and lively form.  Engaging the reader or viewer by head and heart together might help some understand concepts that they would misapply if they only had the intellectual side alone, and tried to integrate these concepts into their own affective existence.  On the other hand, philosophical fiction has limits and dangers.  The writer doesn’t necessarily have to present opponents fairly or accurately, and doesn’t have to present possible problems or flaws accurately.  The Hero is opposed by Villains.  The villains can be as despicable, stupid and ineffectual as the writer wants, and the hero’s plans and principles will always work out in the end.  It is easy to get swept up in the dramatic presentation, and to fail to ask the critical questions.  How many people really would say of themselves, as Toohey does, that they deliberately praise and cultivate mediocrity?  I’ve known some who did, but none who had the self-awareness to fully realize just what they were doing, and none who would have had the honesty to admit it to anyone else if they did ever realize it.  An insane tyrant like Stalin might have done so, but a supposedly typical newspaperman in America?  Roark may rape Dominque, but it’s okay because she falls in love with him because of it; this may be likely in a romance novel but in real life, such behavior is beyond abysmal.  But more concerning to the philosopher, in the film or novel ideas are weighted by their dramatic value, not their intellectual priority.  Roark’s claim that he wishes only to interact with others in a free exchange of equals is a clear statement of one of the essentials of Rand’s philosophy; but if I hadn’t first read her philosophical essays, I likely would have missed the full significance of that part.  Roark’s rationality comes through, somewhat, in his devotion to principles and to architecture; but the full ethical significance of it is really overwhelmed by the overarching themes of genius versus mediocrity and individualism versus the herd. The connections between his creativity, his devotion to his art, his willingness to labor in menial obscurity rather than to design products the marketplace demands, his invitation of martyrdom and his insistence on treating everyone as an equal rather than dominating where he can, all these connections are never made explicit.  To understand why Rand thinks the characters make sense and their motivations are believable, it is necessary to read more than her fiction.

To be continued….

[2] Ayn Rand, “The Fountainhead,” (film) Warner Brothers Pictures, 1949

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2 Responses to “Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (Postscript) pt. 1”

  1. Why Businessmen (don't) Need (this) Philosophy, (not) by Ayn Rand Says:

    […] Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (Postscript) pt. 1 (philosophicalscraps.wordpress.com) […]

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      First, I thought this was a very good article, and I enjoyed reading it. I started blogging as a catharsis and as a chance to work out some ideas for my own benefit, but I have been delighted repeatedly by the intelligent and provocative discourse I have found.

      In many ways, this says what I was trying to say, but perhaps better. I do think, though, that Rand has a reply to this:

      Selfish is selfish. It’s just the means that are different. And what is shockingly contradictory is the existence of moral standards (even if by one’s own standard) and selfishness. It just can’t co-mingle. Even Roark and Rearden didn’t display both traits. They were makers who sought to make money by earning it and earning it fairly. They weren’t selfish.

      I wouldn’t say “they aren’t selfish,” but “Rand has a different definition of ‘selfish’ than the rest of us.” Partly it is because what Kant called “autonomous” Rand calls “selfish:” to be directed by one’s own rationality, own principles, own will rather than the stimulus-response of hedonism. The other half is because she is taking the emotionally loaded word “selfish” and throwing it back at her opponents, trying to disarm the word and the opponents. I suspect that she probably heard from communists and socialists that having any regard for oneself is “selfish.” Rather than submit to the guilt trip from Stalinist oppression and liberal/socialist pretension, she chose to embrace, defend and praise a valid “selfishness” and simultaneously redefine and denigrate generosity. So she defines “selfishness” as being self-directed and having a legitimate sense of self-preservation and self-worth; it seems a lot like what Kant meant by treating yourself with “dignity.” The moocher doesn’t treat himself or herself with dignity; I can say that and we all can understand it and possibly agree. The moocher has no self-respect; nothing weird in saying that. But in Rand’s language, “selfishness” means almost the same thing as “self-respect.” So by her standards, you are the true, rationally selfish person; but she really is speaking another language. It’s no wonder that there’s a whole web site called “The Ayn Rand Lexicon” just to explain her peculiar definitions of such things as selfishness, altruism and so on.

      Of course, the other thing that you point out to us is that if you do accept Rand’s definition of selfishness, there are in fact few businessmen or women who are in fact rational or “selfish” by those standards. Therefore, abandoning the world to self-professed Rand followers means surrender to the moochers and looters. I don’t see that Rand has an answer to that. She has simply misunderstood human nature. Because the defining characteristic of “humanity” is “rational animal,” she has assumed that everyone really wants to be rational. Most people don’t seem to be rational and don’t want to be. They will embrace selfishness, but not her definition of “selfishness” since it rests on rationality. And like you, I can’t imagine many real businessmen or businesswomen being successful in real life. It was inspirational watching Roark finally win out, but in reality we all suspect a guy like him would have spent the rest of his life in that granite mine.

      Her essay, “”How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?” seems like it should address this problem, but I don’t see that she ever really does. At most, she suggests that perhaps her philosophy is expressing ideals that are not actually ever realized, so we can recognize and judge the evil. But when she writes as if any actual society is “rational,” the whole thing approaches dangerous fantasy. TTFN

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