Ayn Rand was a kind of running joke when I was a kid in the 1950s. I
knew about her thanks to the 1957 publication of Atlas Shrugged and its
instant rise on the best-seller list. That in turn drew attention to her
philosophy of Objectivism, which promoted selfishness as a virtue and
damned altruism as a vice -- a self-evident joke.
Rand also got attention because of her anti-Soviet views. She and her
prosperous Russian family had managed to get out of the U.S.S.R. in
1926, and ever after she seemed to have taken the Russian Revolution
awfully personally. Nothing the Soviets did could possibly be any good;
when they launched Sputnik, the first earth satellite, Rand insisted it
had to be a hoax -- and of course the joke was on her.
One or two of my friends loved Atlas Shrugged, which I tried and failed
to get into. So for me Rand and Objectivism were just part of the
right-wing background noise of the era, along with the John Birch
Society and William F. Buckley's National Review. All were mildly
scandalous because of their extreme views. But they were trivial
compared to the segregationists and mainstream red-baiters who ran the
U.S. in those days.
Still, Rand refused to go away. She popped up on TV, she published new
books, and her followers published new books about her. Until her death
in 1982 she was a presence; Objectivism -- and Objectivists -- survived
her, and clearly crossed into Canada. Alberta's Wildrose Party leader
leader Danielle Smith and Vancouver's lululemon founder Chip Wilson are
among high profile Canadians who pay homage to Rand's teachings today.
The greed beat goes on
Gary Weiss's new book argues that Objectivism has not just survived,
but flourished. Its followers have infiltrated the Tea Party movement,
which in turn is a force in the U.S. Congress and the Republican Party.
Worse yet, he claims, Objectivism long had an agent in place on the
commanding heights of the U.S. economy: Alan Greenspan, for decades the
head of the Federal Reserve and a dedicated disciple of Ayn Rand for 60
Weiss makes his case with some plausibility. A veteran business
journalist, covering what he calls "the greed beat," he knows what's
been going on in banking and finance. He writes personally and fluently,
describing his efforts to learn not just about Rand but also about her
"nation" -- the legions of teenagers, activists, bloggers, bankers, and
ordinary folks who accept part or all of her philosophy even when it
seems against their own interests. He even describes the enjoyment he
gained from re-reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.
The Ayn Rand Nation that Weiss encounters comes across as a pretty
thoughtful and likeable crowd, with diverse views. For many of them,
teenage exposure to her novels was a life-changing experience. Some went
on to study her nonfiction articles and books. Most recognize some of
the contradictions in Objectivism, though Rand insisted such
contradictions are impossible.
"Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction," he quotes her,
"check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong." Weiss
then suggests her own incorrect premise: Objectivism is free of
Cult or Soviet parody?
Some of his sources go back to the beginnings of Objectivism, and their
recollections portray the movement as a cult -- or even as a kind of
parody of Soviet communism. Its early members agreed with her in all
things, or were expelled and shunned. (Nathaniel Branden, the number-two
Objectivist after Rand herself, was expelled after he stopped sleeping
Like 1920s communists despising mere socialists, Objectivists rejected
libertarians and other right-wingers for years. The movement suffered a
schism in the late 1980s, something like the split between Stalinists
and Trotskyites, over whether to start talking with libertarians. Today
the Ayn Rand Institute
and the Atlas Society
continue to attack one other. But they find libertarians are now acceptable "fellow travelers."
Weiss does a good job of letting his sources speak for themselves,
though he clearly disagrees with them. He portrays a genuine culture,
full of people who have found some contentment and purpose in
Objectivism. That again echoes the culture of most extremist parties and
other fringe groups.
But he also cautions us that this is not just a fringe group.
Objectivists have a lot of money -- some of which they've earned in
business, and much of which goes to support the movement. The Ayn Rand
Institute, for example, holds a yearly essay contest for college and
high school students, with $100,000 in prize money.
A best-seller for 55 years
They also have the ongoing impact of Rand's book sales. The Ayn Rand Institute late last year reported
that total English-language sales of her books in 2010 were 872,770. In the first half of 2011, Atlas Shrugged
alone sold 292,000 copies (including ebooks). Fifty-five years after its first appearance,Atlas Shrugged
ranks #479 on Amazon.ca. It ranks #2 in "United States" and "Classics,"
and #40 in "Science Fiction and Fantasy." In addition, ARI distributed
almost 272,000 copies of Rand's book free to classrooms.
By comparison, Weiss's book ranks #240,751 on Amazon.ca
Weiss spends a sizable part of the book dealing with Alan Greenspan's
career, first as a young economist drawn to Rand in the early 1950s, and
then as an increasingly powerful figure in government that climaxed in
his years as the head of the Federal Reserve -- where, Weiss says,
Greenspan effectively discouraged any efforts to regulate an
increasingly wild banking industry. He argues that Greenspan always
clung to his Randian views (despite the contradiction of serving in
government), and that those views helped to precipitate the crash of
Greenspan certainly emerges as a slippery apparatchik in Weiss's
portrait, though much of the evidence is circumstantial. But Weiss shows
a lot of very clear connections between Objectivism and the rise of the
Tea Party, both at the grassroots level and in the U.S. Senate and
House of Representatives. Rand's ideas have effectively taken over the
Republican Party, and we can see them in any number of budget cuts and
public-service layoffs at the state level.
Rand's Canadian branch plant
The Objectivists have their eye on us as well. In a publication of the Atlas Society, Bradley Doucet published a long analysis
of Stephen Harper as a "radical for free-market capitalism" who has drifted deplorably into the mainstream:
"Even if Prime Minister Harper still believed what he used to believe,
he did not campaign on a radical free-market platform, and most voters
would not stand for it if he suddenly tried to slash the size and scope
of government... But this is not reason to despair. We need to remember
that in the grand scheme of things, these are early days."
Conservative cabinet member Rona Ambrose
has reportedly expressed support for Objectivism, and Rob Anders
is said to be a former Objectivist. Wildrose's Danielle Smith has praised
Ayn Rand's "celebration of entrepreneurship."
And Vancouver's own lululemon athletica
has put "Who is John Galt?" on its shopping bags. Why? The yoga wear maker's website explains
company founder "Chip Wilson first read this book when he was 18 years
old working away from home. Only later, looking back, did he realize the
impact the book's ideology had on his quest to elevate the world from
mediocrity to greatness (it is not coincidental that this is lululemon’s
The official voice of the stretch pants empire goes on to exhort: "We
are able to control our careers, where we live, how much money we make
and how we spend our days through the choices we make... Life can be
hard, challenging and unfair. What we can control, however, is our
reaction. We can choose to rise up and be great..."
Why do they even bother?
Gary Weiss makes a strong case that Ayn Rand Nation is real, large, and
growing despite the many contradictions its members tolerate: Like
Atlas himself, her religious, emotional Tea Party fans shrug off her
rigid atheism and rationalism.
But Weiss fails to spot the contradiction that I'm still struggling
with when I consider Ayn Rand and her radical capitalism: Why do her
Objectivists even bother with essay contests and educating a new
generation? It makes them look like altruists, trying to do the rest of
us a big favour by converting us to their creed. What's in it for them
if we all become selfish Objectivists too?
After all, some very John Galtian people like the billionaire Koch
brothers have made fortunes under the current regime, however oppressive
they may consider it. The present American Senate and Congress are made
up mostly of multimillionaires, and no bankers have suffered for the
misdeeds that led to the crash of 2008. How would their lives be
improved under a no-tax, no-government Objectivist state of affairs?
After all, instead of letting ordinary taxpayers foot the bill for an
army, the rich would have to pay for their own private mercenaries. The
mercenaries would be as reliable as the Praetorian Guard, which
routinely murdered Roman emperors who didn't pay them enough. The
billionaires would have to battle one another like so many Somali clans,
just to survive.
Meanwhile we ordinary folk, uneducated, ill-housed, and diseased, would
make unproductive employees for the brilliantly imaginative Randian
capitalists seeking ever greater profits from the creation and sale of
their new inventions. We'd be too poor to be customers for those
Ruling a wasteland
Future John Galts would have to sleep in castles, behind a wall of
guards protecting them from us. A philosophy that detests the "gun" of
government coercion would survive only by imposing such coercion on
The masters of a Randian society would rule a wasteland of clear cuts,
poisoned streams, and empty seas, except for those patches they
personally owned and protected. To maintain themselves would be vastly
more expensive, in wealth, time and energy than it is today: their own
farms, their own roads, their own firefighters and teachers and
Marx made no predictions about the shape of a communist society.
Similarly, Ayn Rand and her followers really don't (or can't) imagine
what their own utopia would be like.
That in itself is the final contradiction of Objectivism: A philosophy
of radical capitalism, without a business plan. But it's no longer a