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.