What Conservatives Don’t Know About Ayn Rand

Rand on Duty and Compromise, Christianity and the “Sub-Normal,” Abortion and Free Markets

A little more than twenty-eight years ago, on  March 6, 1982, Ayn Rand died of heart failure in her small, high-rise rental apartment on East 34th Street in the Murray Hill section of New York. Although for three decades Alan Greenspan had been one of her closest friends and followers, she neglected his advice to invest in stocks and bonds. She kept her money in a savings bank across the street from her apartment. She left about $800,000 in her estate, a significant sum for the time but much less than she might have amassed had she bought property and shares in America’s great companies with her decades’ flow of royalties. She cared little for luxury, however, and was afraid of financial markets she did not understand. She wanted only enough to work in peace.

She also left a body of work that champions laissez-faire capitalism as passionately and persuasively as that of any writer of the last century. She loved the idea of capitalism, not because it offers the greatest standard of living to the greatest number of people or promotes the common good, though she declared that she believed it does these things.  She loved it because, by her lights, it is the only economic system ever devised that both depends on and advances individual rights, including the right to live as one sees fit and to own the fruits of one’s labor as money and private property. “The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man’s rational nature, that it protects man’s survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is justice,” she wrote in 1965. In other words, her allegiance was to individual rights before capitalism.

In the 1950s and 1960s, traditionalist conservatives such as William F. Buckley, Jr., Whittaker Chambers, and Russell Kirk had trouble with Rand; they couldn’t get her to keep quiet about her less orthodox prescriptions and opinions. (At least they listened to her speeches and read her work.) In 2010, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and the Tea Partiers seem not to know that Rand HAD any unorthodox views. Yet both–and every conservative from Reagan to Ron Paul–have invoked her argument that capitalism is not just the best of a bad set of choices but rather a categorical, MORAL good. They use it as a coup de grace in arguments with liberals and other pro-regulation, pro-Democratic “nanny-staters” about the proper limits of government power and what it means for government to redistribute wealth to the people whom FDR, Rand’s nemesis, called the ill-fed, ill-housed, and insecure.

If there was one thing Ayn Rand hated, it was the appropriation of some of her words and ideas at the expense of others. Her ideology was a SEAMLESS whole, she and her followers insisted. She contemptuously called the practice of picking and choosing among her tenets “cashing in” on her name. She had a habit of threatening to sue those who did it, especially those who marched around with signs claiming to be “going Galt.”

Here are some of her radically individualistic ideas that 2010 conservatives ignore.

• Duty, to country, family, etc.

Duty is one of the “most destructive anti-concepts in the history of moral philosophy,” Ayn Rand wrote in 1974.  By “anti-concept,” she meant a false idea designed to undermine and replace a true one. In this case, the true idea is “causality,” the law of cause and effect that guides a sane person’s attempt to match his means to his ends and his actions to his conscious principles and goals. “Duty destroys reason,” she wrote. “It supersedes knowledge and judgment, making the process of thinking and judging irrelevant to one’s actions. Duty destroys values,” she added. “It demands that one betray or sacrifice one’s highest values for the sake of an inexplicable command and transforms values [that oppose “duty”] into a threat to one’s moral worth.” As a notable example, Rand emphatically opposed the military draft. Does Sarah Palin support conscientious objectors?

• Christianity

She hated and feared it from childhood as yet another ruse by power seekers to humiliate and manipulate individual human beings. For one thing, “an omniscient being, by definition, is a totalitarian dictator,” she wrote. “Ah, but he won’t use his power? Never mind. He has it.” For another, she loathed what she saw as its fetishistic celebration of suffering and human sacrifice. “I do regard the cross as the symbol of the sacrifice of the ideal to the non-ideal, she told Alvin Toffler in 1964. “A man of perfect virtue was sacrificed for men who are vicious. . . And it is in the name of that symbol that men are asked to sacrifice themselves for their inferiors.” She was a lifelong atheist who wore a dollar sign where others wore a cross. It’s my guess that Glenn Beck, who likes the notion of a Christian nation, would not approve.

• Compromise

“There are two sides to every issue. One is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.” In typical Russian utopian fashion, Rand viewed compromise as craven and degrading, possibly because she was a Russian. Since Russians have been ruled by dictatorships for at least 300 years and have never attempted to govern themselves, wherefore compromise? It’s nobler to insist on what you’ve never tried to practice. In America, compromise is a way of life. Come to think of it, perhaps the Tea Partiers DO admire this in Rand.



16 thoughts on “What Conservatives Don’t Know About Ayn Rand

    • I don’t think they need frighten. Obviously Rand intended them to be taken as exemplars and ideals, post-“We the Living” anyway. (I’d argue her focus on heroes developed only in “The Fountainhead” – prior to that, her concerns were more Naturalistic, in her terms.) But so do many fiction writers. What’s interesting is the impact Rand has, on friend and foe. What accounts for the huge reaction she inspires?

      In contrast to the usual approach, I like to take Rand’s fictional orientation not as she [officially anyway] would have had herself taken: as an interesting experience in one way of being. I think she picks up on interesting possibilities in life – she certainly believed in living a colorful and intense life! – and she had some brilliant and possibly immortal flashes of insight. But there is no way she could provide a single specific moral code for all humanity – the existence of the introvert/extravert difference alone guarantees that, not to mention thinker/feeler, and not to mention ~other~ biological influences on personality. Still, so what? Tolstoy had a very specific moral code too. We can enjoy his work without having to buy into it.

      I’ve profited from Rand (and from criticising her) precisely because she is so extreme. She pushes a certain type of personality to the extreme. Hand it to the lady, she lived – as they say, a little vulgarly – balls to the wall!

  1. First off… I’m so happy you’ve got the blog launched! And can’t wait to dive in with some longer observations.

    Of course I’m a hideous heretic since I can’t wait to tinker with some of her concepts… I want to unravel her seamless whole.

    But with confidence that many threads have use in new cloth.

  2. And Thanks back!

    Let the unraveling begin! The new garment that may arise is still unknown, and there may be more than one outfit in there, but it can’t help but be an interesting process.

    Let me start with an accepted bit of science: The reality of biological altruism which has impact on her opinions as discussed in this first post.

    As you know she viewed altruism with contempt. I have considerable empathy with this view since I’m not much of a “let’s-all-get-along-and-sing-kumbiyah-together” type either. And may even be less charitable in practice than she was.

    While it is possible to intellectually reject altruism as a matter of personal belief, (just as one can believe the Earth is only a few thousand years old if so inclined) it’s not possible to persist in claiming to cling to rational coherence while ignoring clear evidence.

    To be fair, there is a distinction between biological and intellectual altruism.

    But the fatal flaw is that her rejection of intellectual altruism obliterates consideration (and perhaps even awareness) of a critical problem in civilization survival: biological altruism actually promotes some of the things she most hated… Authoritarianism!

    Authoritarianism is product of the natural limits and attenuation of biological altruism as related to natural human community size and the implications of scale.

    I’d like to come back to the qualities mentioned above… duty, compromise, etc… but enough for now.

    For reference:

    The Foundations of Authoritarianism

    Ayn Rand & Alan Greenspan: The Altruism Fly in the Objectivist Ointment

      • That’s a fair criticism. I don’t know that I’ve got a specific paradigm I’m promoting, though I’ve got a few ideas.

        I’d say it’s more a realization that there’s some problems with current economic and political paradigms and maybe a thought or two where we might try to look for some solutions.

        While its easy to understand self-interest as a guiding principal, whether in philosophy or economics… and to hence make assumptions and base theories on its reality…

        It’s more difficult to understand, let alone track, the way biological altruism actually operates amongst individuals in groups. It’s the difference between how it would affect you seeing someone close to you starving versus someone 10,000 miles away. Or a relative versus a stranger asking for a loan.

        Self-interest is very strong and has no fuzzy boundaries. But altruism is also real and strong. And has real effects. But it has very fuzzy boundaries. Those boundaries vary from person to person and even from time to time.

        They’re associated with things we all know like family and friends, nations or religions, clubs, gangs and Congresses.

        Altruism’s strength is directly related to ‘proximity’… whether physical, psychological or social.

        This isn’t a value judgment. It’s just a reality. This is a source of much great good. Much of the world’s progress has built upon this.

        But its also been, paradoxically a source of considerable trouble.

        Classes and Authoritarianism could not exist were it not BOTH for the EXISTENCE of altruism as well as it’s ability to see the ‘socially distant’ as worthy of less.

        It allows us to see the poor as deserving of their lot for their obvious inability to improve themselves (which makes an assumption regarding a level playing field and is invalid without that assumption).

        And representative government and the democratic forms of the Enlightenment arose out of an implicit recognition that this tendency towards social stratification needed specific structures, rules and forms to guard against this tendency.

        They were implicitly recognizing the ‘altruism problem’… though they wouldn’t have phrased it that way. I just think a recognition of this problem needs to be a bit more formalized and embedded in operating assumptions. Because it suggests some changes are needed (and possible).

        While Rand’s personal Chutzpah was admirable, and I also enjoyed her books and characters…

        Her rejection of altruism allows a sort of blindness to its actual effects. And that ultimately promoted what she claimed to hate: a tendency towards the centralization of power.

  3. religious conservatives are certainly in bed with an odd comrade in embracing ayn rand – the same was noted about quotes from her on some desks during the reagan years. however, many of them seem as comfortable with it as she was with endorsing von mises’ economic conclusions while disagreeing deeply with his idea ofpraxeology. there’s no necessary linkage to belief X that must be accepted by the person who agrees with thinker A’s belief Y. objectivism is a seamless whole within objectivism’s internal frame-of-reference, just as was von mises’ system. that entanglement is not necessarily present outside of the system’s frame of reference. (and yes, this paradigmatic perspective -does- apply to objectivism, too. paradigms are some of the most creative products of man, so one shouldn’t shy from the designation.)

    • Thanks for writing, Michael. You surely have a point. But unlike Rand and Mises, religious conservatives don’t acknowledge–or, I suspect, even certainly know of–their disagreements with Rand on matters of praxeology, metaphysics, epistemology, and morals. The point of the blog column is to alert conservatives of all kinds (assuming any of them read the blog) to views Rand held and stated repeatedly that would not only displease and vex them but would horrify and repel them.

      • Anne –

        Do you think their knowing that would lead them to shun Rand? My impression is that a number of them kinda-sorta know it, but think of her as batty/heathen in ethics. They like where she overlaps with them without buying into her as a total phenomenon. Which is kind of your point, yes? If one of them says “Ayn Rand Was Right,” they’re getting a lot more than they bargained for.

  4. Your casual mention of Ron Paul as a “conservative” is wrong: Paul is a libertarian, as he’ll gladly tell you, and I would get even more specific and call him a libertarian of the Rothbardian persuasion. You’re mistaking his acceptance and popularity in rightwing populist circles with his own core beliefs.

    In any case, welcome to the blogosphere, and I look forward to more thoughtful analysis from the author of a fascinating book, really the first real biography of Ayn Rand the actual person, as opposed to the persona or the politics.

    • I would actually regard Paul as a follower of Von Mises and the Austrain school, since that is actually how he came into the libertarian fold. He recommends Rothbard’s and Rand’s books, but also states that he has “serious disagreements” with Rand and I’ve never caught a hint of anarchism from him.

  5. There is a book that came out recently listing 10 books conservatives should read. It listed Atlas Shrugged as a book conservatives should read, but called it “an imposter” because although it defended some conservative ideals, it also defended a lot of non-conservative ones.

    As for the current alliance that seems to have sprung up between the religious and secular Right… well, I can’t vouch for Limbaugh, but I know for a fact that Ron Paul and Glenn Beck are fully aware of where they disagree with Ayn Rand, just as those who follow Ayn Rand are fully aware of where they disagree with Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. While this is not true of every individual in the tea party and conservative movements, it is certainly true of most of the people in those movements who reference Ayn Rand, since it’s hard to read the Fountainhead without getting the idea that Roark doesn’t believe in altruism, selflessness or God. I think they’ve just agreed to disagree for a while, aided by the fact that Rand is not still alive to drive her critics away from cooperation and tell her supporters that they must cooperate with only the ideologically pure.

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