The Antidote to Ayn Rand

The last word of Ayn Rand’s dystopian novella Anthem is “EGO.” Grasping the significance of this forbidden word is a kind of divine revelation for the novel’s protagonist, signaling his emancipation from the benighted, collectivist society into which he was born. I read Anthem in the 8th grade and, like many adolescents introduced to Rand’s seductive brand of egoism, I was attracted to her heroic depiction of strong-willed, self-reliant individuals fighting against the mediocrity and stupidity of society. I can’t say I ever had an Ayn Rand phase – my childhood fantasy world was populated instead with hobbits, wizards and elves – but I understand why many teenagers do. Adolescence is a restless stage when young people test the boundaries of their world, often questioning the authority of parents, teachers and preachers for the first time. Rand captures something of that rebellious attitude. But her novels also appeal to teenagers because they validate a tendency in full bloom at that age: selfishness.

Our genetic and cultural endowment includes cooperative and altruistic impulses as well as selfish ones, but the first two are rarely at the height of expression during adolescence. Most of us are rabid egoists at that age, prioritizing our needs and wants over those of others, not yet beginning to recognize our membership in what John Dewey calls the “community of causes and consequences,” which includes a world of human beings whose concerns are every bit as legitimate as our own. Tragically, some never advance beyond this stage, and not a few of them end up working on Wall Street. Which brings us back to Rand – matron saint of the financial ruling class and its political enablers, goddess of the cult of free-market capitalism. Rand is second perhaps only to Adam Smith in her hallowedness among the cheerleaders of laissez-faire government, with the distinct advantage of having been read by many of them.

As tempting as it is to dismiss Rand’s novels as self-indulgent adolescent fantasy (and many have), it would be a mistake not to take her ideas seriously. They inspired the modern libertarian movement and helped shape American economic policy for the past 30 years. A figure no less prominent than Alan Greenspan counted Rand as a close personal friend and guiding light, and conservatives from Ron Paul to Clarence Thomas built their political and judicial philosophies around her ideas. Her radical brand of individualism has all but taken over the Republican Party – steering it away not only from the founding fathers’ vision of “a more perfect union,” but also from the GOP’s own communitarian roots, as E.J. Dionne argues in his book Our Divided Political Heart. Until now, Rand wielded influence largely by invisible hand, her critically panned but perennially popular books passing from reader to reader like a secret right-wing manifesto slipped under the snooty noses of the liberal academic establishment. Sooner or later, however, her ideas were bound to emerge from the shadows.

Enter Paul Ryan, candidate for vice president, “intellectual leader” of the Republican Party and on again, off again Ayn Rand acolyte. Although he has lately tried to distance himself, Ryan’s longstanding allegiance to Rand’s philosophy (going so far as to make her books required reading for staffers) has thrown her ideas into the spotlight. His rise in national politics gives us an opportunity to submit Rand’s ideas to fresh scrutiny and to hold them up against competing visions of a just society.

Dewey provides that vision. He was the preeminent social philosopher of his time, exerting a profound influence on American thought, politics and culture during and after the Progressive Era. His legacy as a social activist, education reformer and champion of participatory democracy extends to multiple aspects of contemporary life, and his powerful conception of public virtue and positive liberty is a badly needed antidote to the poisonous narcissism that now dominates one half of the political spectrum.

Dewey’s short and superb book Individualism Old and New was published in 1930, but could easily have been written last year. In it, he argues that personal liberty is enhanced – not diminished – by social cooperation, and the real threat to the individual comes not from a dynamic concept of the public good, but from the social isolation and economic injustice endemic to mindless corporate capitalism. Dewey thinks that promoting individual freedom and opportunity requires not just private ambition, but also public collaboration and an open, experimental attitude. Unfortunately, we watched a different experiment play out over the past 30 years – the Randian experiment of deregulation, deunionization and regressive tax policy – which culminated in economic crisis, soaring inequality, decreased social mobility, political gridlock and cultural decline. It’s time to learn from another experimental period in American history, one that brought us 30 years of relative progress, growth and prosperity – time, in other words, to stop listening to John Galt and to start listening again to John Dewey.

Now, despite their radically different worldviews, Dewey and Rand have some striking similarities. Both are pragmatists who value action over abstraction and believe that the ultimate worth of an idea is how it works in practice. Both are champions of modern science and the human capacity for reason, although Rand believes that such tools uncover absolute and immutable truths, while Dewey considers all intellectual inquiry problem-oriented and therefore provisional. Both are also critical of organized religion, although Dewey acknowledges the role that faith plays in bringing people together and giving them a shared sense of purpose, while Rand dismisses faith as an odious device for controlling the weak-minded. Finally, both envision a free and just society in which individuals can flourish and prosper – in other words, both are individualists, of a sort. Their respective understanding of individualism and how to foster it, however, couldn’t differ more.

Let’s start with Rand. I should note that I am not about to attempt a critique of Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. I leave it to others to decide whether her metaphysical and epistemological views are sound or original. I will say that academic philosophers have never taken her work very seriously, and the vast majority of Rand scholarship appears in publications established and funded by her followers. I’m more interested in Randism, the relatively untechnical sociopolitical viewpoint that devotees such as Ryan tend to glean from her novels. Mercifully, this worldview is encapsulated in a single speech (a mere 90 pages!) by the character John Galt in Rand’s ponderous tome Atlas Shrugged. I won’t mince words – the speech is a rambling, vitriolic screed filled with contempt for much of humanity and shot through with paranoid fantasies of victimhood, entitlement and moral superiority – essentially a clumsy distillation of Nietzsche’s worst ideas, minus the subtlety, originality and wit. I will, however, attempt to faithfully render some of its salient points.

At the core of Galt’s speech is what Randians call “sanction of the victim.” Galt argues that great individuals (“men of the mind”) are victims of modern society who sanction the use of their superior talent and intellect to an ungrateful body politic but could just as easily revoke this gift. Atlas Shrugged imagines what would happen if these “victims” went on strike (spoiler alert: society falls apart). The “producers” – that is, the bold inventors and industrialists who shape our world – are constantly dragged down and shackled by “looters” and “moochers -” that is, the state and anyone who benefits from it. The primary mechanisms by which the state accomplishes this task are taxation and regulation, but religion and public education play important supporting roles. It would be hard to overstate the centrality of this victim complex in Rand’s writing, or, for that matter, in modern conservative and libertarian thought. We hear echoes in the opposition of “makers” and “takers,” “job creators” and “dependents,” in the GOP slogan “We built that!” (that is, “You didn’t, and you’re not going to take it away from us!”), and in the persecutory delusions of FOX News and the right-wing media. Although Ryan is supposed to be the Randian on the GOP ticket, one couldn’t ask for a better articulation of her paranoid worldview than Mitt Romney’s speech to a group of super-wealthy donors, in which he deplores the 47% of Americans (mostly retired, disabled or working poor families) who don’t pay federal income taxes, for lacking personal responsibility and harboring – irony of ironies – a victim complex.

Consonant with Rand’s victim mentality is her belief that individualism is incompatible with any concept of the public good. Galt lampoons the very notion of public interest, dismissing it as “any project serving those who do not pay.” By contrast, Dewey argues that a vibrant and tightly woven social fabric sustains the individual. “Originality and uniqueness are not opposed to social nurture; they are saved by it from eccentricity and escape.” This was not an idle notion for Dewey. He was a prominent social reformer who founded several lasting institutions and helped mold modern education. Galt, by contrast, derides public education throughout his speech: “Sweep aside those parasites of subsidized classrooms, who live on the profits of the mind of others.” Public schools and teachers are anathema to Rand insofar as they promote (and embody) civic virtue and social integration. We see reflections of this attitude in Rick Santorum’s belief, shared by many conservatives, that universities are brainwashing factories, indoctrinating our youth into socialism, and in the venomous attacks against public school teachers and unions. The Ayn Rand Institute has waged its own campaign of indoctrination by foisting 400,000 copies of her books on schools each year and by pressuring universities to hire Rand-minded professors.

Rand also stresses private moral virtue – an egoistic virtue ethics apparently inspired by Aristotle. Many religions and philosophies embrace an ethic of self-cultivation and autonomy – Buddhism, Stoicism, Protestantism, Existentialism and Pragmatism, to name a few – but only for Rand does this focus on the individual specifically demand a disregard for the well-being of others. Whereas most forms of individualism treat the cultivation of personal virtue as a means of achieving harmony with one’s surroundings, Rand considers private and public virtue at odds, as if the former were a kind of spiky armor against the corrupting influence of the latter. Sacrifice, humility and altruism are cardinal vices in Rand’s system – examples of Nietzsche’s “slave morality.” Her list of virtues includes selfishness and pride, making it oddly reminiscent of the virtues the character Commodus arrogates to himself in the movie Gladiator just before he murders his father, Marcus Aurelius. The list also includes independence, which is laudable enough, but somewhat belied by Galt himself at the beginning of his speech, where he says of his followers: “I showed them the way to live by another morality – mine. It is mine that they chose to follow.” Rounding out the list are productiveness, justice, rationality, honesty and integrity – all perfectly unassailable, at least on some interpretation. But how do the actual avatars of Randism live up to these ideals?

Setting aside the question of whether a private equity manager and a career politician qualify as “producers,” the Romney/Ryan campaign has manifested a well-publicized disregard for facts and rational argument. In his big chance to flex his Randian virtues on a national stage during the GOP convention, the self-styled “straight-shooter” Ryan threw honesty to the wind. (Arguably, he had done this much earlier with his fanciful budget plan.) Subsequent revelations of his tendency toward “truthiness” suggest that he might actually be one of the worst kinds of Randian villain: a “faker.” And integrity? One can only imagine the mental contortions required for a right-wing religious conservative to hold up as his intellectual beacon an atheist who firmly supported abortion and whose fictional heroes commit apostasy, adultery and even rape. Ryan claims he was shocked to eventually learn that Rand was an atheist. Apparently the heavy-handed denunciations of faith and religion that pepper her novels didn’t penetrate his consciousness – a convenient escape from accusations of inconsistency, but not one that engenders faith in his ability to comprehend what he reads.

It would be a mistake, however, to consider Ryan a bad Randian. Behind the bluster and posturing of Rand’s protagonists, there was always a deeply cynical worldview, steeped in delusions of authenticity and autonomy. Even Rand herself lived off Medicare and Social Security for the last years of her life – which would be perfectly fine, if she hadn’t spent her career arguing that accepting any form of help from the government is a sign of weakness and venality. At the heart of her disconnect from reality is the belief that great individuals propagate in a vacuum – that private virtue (and vice) is sui generis and entirely determinative of success or failure. Against this view, Dewey argues that culture is, in fact, the seedbed of individuality – that only a progressive democratic society that cultivates public virtue as well as private ambition can foster authentic individualism. “Recovery of individuals capable of effective self-control can be had only as there is first a humbler exercise of will to observe existing social realities and to direct them according to their own potentialities.” This view, far from being antagonistic toward individual initiative, seeks to create the conditions for its proliferation through public education, shared economic opportunity and social development.

The final element of Randism I want to highlight is its utopianism. In Atlas Shrugged, society’s most productive citizens are secreted away to Galt’s Gulch, a “voluntary association of men held together by nothing but every man’s self-interest.” This libertarian paradise is Rand’s vision for a free and just society governed by a single law: “No man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force.” Setting aside the low-hanging fruit here – for example, that such a legal system wouldn’t proscribe embezzlement, fraud or all cases of incest – there is a beguiling elegance and clarity to this vision, one that many modern conservatives and libertarians find attractive. If only government would get out of the way and let individuals (and corporations) do as they please, everything would settle into a natural, happy equilibrium. It is a seductively simple idea, akin to the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, signed by nearly every Republican member of Congress, which prohibits them from voting to raise taxes under any circumstances – an idea concocted by a 12-year-old Grover Norquist. However, it is also deeply reductive and impractical. As Nora Ephron once said of Rand’s other doorstop novel The Fountainhead, “It is better read when one is young enough to miss the point. Otherwise, one cannot help thinking it is a very silly book.”

So, Rand’s vision for society is an anarchic utopia founded on the myth that isolated and entirely self-sufficient individuals are the basic unit of a free society and the natural byproduct of laissez-faire capitalism. Dewey argues, to the contrary, that we live in a “corporate,” that is, collective, society whether we like or not, in which our interests are bound up with those of others. Our choice is whether to allow the narrow pursuit of private profit to dominate our social interactions, or to organize them around some democratically determined concept of the public good. Dewey argues that the former alternative, not the latter, denigrates and diminishes the individual. However, he rejects the notion that such order can be imposed externally, and is therefore no Marxist. “An artificially induced uniformity of thought and sentiment is a symptom of an inner void,” write Dewey. In fact, given Rand’s utopianism, her militant atheism and her ideological absolutism, she has more in common with Marx than Dewey ever did.

In short, the choice between Rand and Dewey is not one between individualism and collectivism, as the right would have us believe the current election is. It is a choice between competing visions of a free society – of how to balance individual self-interest and the collective good. On the one hand, we have an atavistic utopian fantasy that celebrates radical dissociation, unrestrained capitalism, and the virtue of selfishness, and on the other hand, we have an open, democratic and public-minded philosophy, firmly grounded in the world as it is. If the ultimate worth of an idea is indeed how it works in practice, the era of progress and growth in which Dewey played an active role speaks volumes over the era of decline and economic injustice we brought on ourselves by listening to Rand. But she did have one thing right: the fate of the individual hangs in the balance. As Dewey concludes in Individualism Old and New:

To gain an integrated individuality, each of us needs to cultivate his own garden. But there is no fence about this garden: it is no sharply marked-off enclosure. Our garden is the world, in the angle at which it touches our manner of being. By accepting the corporate and industrial world in which we live, and by thus fulfilling the pre-condition for interaction with it, we, who are also parts of the moving present, create ourselves as we create an unknown future.