A couple months ago I wrote about how Ayn Rand—nearly three decades after her death—has become the target of almost daily smear jobs from both the left and the right, and even some “friendly” commentaries greatly distort her ideas.
That phenomenon is remarkable: I cannot name any other 20th Century public intellectual subject to comparable mistreatment. The smears raise an interesting question: what is it about Rand’s ideas that make her opponents afraid of people reading them?
Most of the smears against Rand are so silly and petty that they do not merit responses; anyway, one could spend one’s life rebutting them, hardly a productive venture. But the latest smear job, by Al Lewis, inexplicably appears on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, among the largest and most respected papers in the world. So perhaps a few words of reply are in order.
Lewis begins with a handful of true claims. Rand opposed libertarianism, and she was right to do so. Rand also criticized Ronald Reagan, who presided over deficit spending, a Social Security tax increase, and higher trade barriers. Perhaps more significantly, he helped set the framework for the growth of the religious right. If Reagan looks rosy to many modern eyes, we need merely recap the names of the full-termers who preceded and followed him: Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama.
Lewis is also quite correct that Rand “was an atheist, an abortion supporter and a champion of the anti-Christian ideal that selfishness is a virtue.” And she “villifies communism [and] socialism,” as does any sensible person. But that marks the end of Lewis’s truthful summary.
It is not true that Rand villified unionism per se, as Lewis claims; she opposed “compulsory unionism,” just as she opposed compulsory corporatism and compulsion in general.
Lewis then writes, “Some of her ideas are central to the American Dream. But Ms. Rand did much of her writing while hopped up on amphetamines and nicotine. And like most people who abuse this combination, she went too far. She crafted philosophical arguments and wrote bizarre works of fiction to prove their premises.”
Let me begin with the smear about the quality of Rand’s fiction. Very often, a commentator’s hysteria against Rand the novelist roughly matches his ignorance of her works. What Lewis (without argument) regards as “bizarre,” I regard as unique and genius. As far as I know, no other novel ever published has exploded in sales a half century after its original publication. While often the popular strays from the good, there is something about Rand’s fiction that deeply touches millions of readers. While many of Rand’s critics wish to scare away potential readers of her novels by senselessly mocking the works, any honest individual will ignore all that and decide for himself.
Lewis’s claim that Rand’s ideas are wrong merely because she smoked and took amphetamines constitutes sheer anti-intellectualism. Even if Lewis’s claim were true — and it is not — still the ideas would have to be addressed on their own terms, apart from the personality of Ayn Rand.
It is true that Rand smoked and took amphetamines. But let us remember we’re talking about the 20th Century! Rand lived through the era when cigarette companies ran advertisements proclaiming the health benefits of their products. And Jacob Sullum reviews in Saying Yes (page 208): “For decades methamphetamine… was widely used in oral form, along with amphetamine… and dextroamphetamine… These drugs were given to soldiers during World War II, taken by students cramming for exams and truck drivers trying to stay awake on long hauls, and prescribed by doctors for weight loss, narcolepsy, depression, and hyperactivity. Until 1954, amphetamines were available in the United States without a prescription.”
Did Rand develop her ideas while she using drugs? No. Jennifer Burns (herself hardly consistently fair to Rand) notes in Goddess of the Marketthat, during the editing stage of The Fountainhead, Rand started using “Benzedrine… a widely prescribed amphetamine” (page 85).
By this time, Rand had already written We the Living, her scathing critique of Soviet Communism and statism more generally. She had already written Anthem, her dystopian novel about an independent man who fights the oppressive regime around him. And she had already written (but not finalized) The Fountainhead, the first of her two lengthy and highly ambitious novels. While Rand refined and developed some of her ideas between Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, all the kernels of her ideas were in the earlier works.
I join most moderns in thinking that regularly taking amphetamines is pretty bad for you, and moreover it can adversely affect your personality. But this notion that Rand’s ideas may be discarded merely because (after formulating most of those ideas) she took amphetamines is ridiculous and intellectually dishonest nonsense.
Let us continue. Lewis writes, “Ms. Rand mentored former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan,” who “poured gasoline on the free market until it exploded.” In fact, Rand advocated the gold standard. So did Greenspan in his younger years, which is a big reason why Rand liked him. The fact that Greenspan became a backstabbing sellout who undermined all the principles Rand believed in and advocated is hardly Rand’s fault.
Next Lewis claims that, while Rand attacked welfare recipients as “looters,” “[w]e now know corporations are the real ‘parasites’ in an economic crisis.” Lewis claims that Rand “did not imagine executives would loot their shareholders, cause an economic crisis and then beg for government help.” His comment reflects such basic ignorance of the story of Atlas Shrugged that I must wonder whether he’s ever even read this novel which he regards as “bizarre.”
Indeed, most of the major villains of Atlas Shrugged come from favor-seeking businesses! Wesley Mouch begins life as a corporate lobbyist. He joins the major villains James Taggart, a railroad executive, and Orren Boyle, a steel executive. The Starnes siblings run a motor company into the ground, inspiring the strike at the heart of the story.
So Lewis’s claim that Rand’s “brand of laissez-faire capitalism led to corporations growing bigger” until absorbing subsidies and “telling big government what to do” is nothing but a lie. What led to modern corporatism was not laissez-faire capitalism but its opposite: the protofascist policies of the big-government “progressives.” (For example, see Amity Shlaes’s book for a description of how FDR’s key advisors idolized Soviet-style “planning.”)
In fact, Rand argued for the complete separation of economy and state, leaving government the sole function of protecting individual rights. She opposed all subsidies and bailouts, all anticompetitive laws from wage controls to trade barriers, and all forms of economic compulsion. She championed economic liberty, property rights, and strictly voluntary relationships.
For Lewis to blame Rand for the errors and economic distortions of her ideological opposites is the height of dishonesty.
The silver lining is that all the grotesque smear jobs against Rand raise her profile and stir the interest of honest readers.
Ellis Weiner commented July 18, 2011 at 4:01 PM
Lewis’ article sounds eminently open to criticism, but it sounds as though you equate any criticism of Rand with a “smear.” Similarly, criticism of Rand’s fiction is (“very often”) equated with “hysteria,” while you seek to prove Rand’s “genius” by appealing to her works’ popularity.
“There is something about Rand’s fiction that deeply touches millions of readers,” you say. It’s true. There was also something about Jonathan Livingston Seagull that deeply touched millions of readers, as there is with regard to The Secret, The Bridges of Madison County, Action Comics, Interview With the Vampire, and so on. Like Atlas Shrugged, they, too, were and are unique.
It’s disingenuous at best to pretend to acknowledge that “often the popular strays from the good,” and then to attempt to legitimize “the popular” by talking about “deeply touching.”
What advocates of Atlas never acknowledge is how stacked a deck Rand dealt from: her heroes are all demi-gods and her villains are out of melodrama. The collectivization of the nations of Europe, which she uses to make her heroes seem even more fearless and embattled, add to a third-rate science fiction world (with its “lens” that conceals Gault’s Gulch, and the preposterous Rearden Metal, and the laughable motor invented by Galt, and the straight-from-the-fifties “Project X”) that she has the gall, or the simple obliviousness, to include in a novel ostensibly about “reality.”
Champions of Atlas write as though they had never actually read a decent novel. As Flannery O’Connor wrote to someone, Rand “makes Mickey Spillane seem like Dostoevsky.”
Admire “rationality” all you want. But defenses of Atlas Shrugged are at best exercises in wishful thinking and at words demonstrations of lousy taste in literature.
Or, to put it another way, read this: [link to ridiculous work “Atlas Slugged” omitted]
Ari commented July 18, 2011 at 4:27 PM
Ellis, I do not equate all criticisms of Rand with smears. Indeed, I have criticized Rand myself. I do not attempt to prove Rand’s genius by appealing to her popularity. Instead, I link to Diana Hsieh’s wonderful analysis of the novel. It is not true that all of Rand’s heroes are “demi-gods;” that’s just silly. Moreover, her heroes span the range of ability and interests. Rand never intended her novel to be “ostensibly about reality;” instead, she created a purely fictional world in which universal principles nevertheless operate. Obviously Galt’s motor is science fiction; as to whether Rearden Metal is “proposterous,” check out this link:
You seem to think you can prove Rand’s literature is bad by piling on the ad hominem attacks; obviously, that’s wrong. As for your own amateurish work that you use my web page to promote, you parody a straw man. -Ari
Neil Parille commented July 19, 2011 at 6:24 AM
It’s unfair that so many people blame Rand for Greenspan and the GEC.
That being said, why did Rand remain close to Greenspan until her death in 82? Harry Binswanger said that by the early 70s he realized Greenspan had departed from Objectivism. It’s interesting since Rand split with people.
According to Rand’s biographers, she admired Greenspan because he was older and more independent than many others in her circle.