Paul Ryan, the Republican congressman from Wisconsin who was just elected speaker of the US House of Representatives, has acknowledged his admiration for novelist Ayn Rand. On various occasions he has cited Rand as the reason he entered politics and claimed that he asks all of his interns and staff to read her novels. More recently, Ryan has distanced himself somewhat from Rand, saying that his devout Catholicism prevents him from adopting her staunchly atheistic philosophy.
What then should we make of the enthusiasm the new speaker of the House has for Ayn Rand?
What did Ayn Rand believe?
Rand, a Russian immigrant, published two widely heralded novels, The Fountainhead, (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), and founded a school of philosophy she called “objectivism,” which argues that personal happiness is the moral purpose of every person’s life. This led her to reject socialism, advocate strongly for individual rights, and promote free-market capitalism as the only system that truly respects individual rights. In the tussle between egoism and altruism, Rand came out squarely for the former, even extolling what she called “the virtue of selfishness.”
The Fountainhead tells the story of architect Howard Roark, who chooses to work in obscurity rather than compromise his personal and artistic integrity. Atlas Shrugged is a more complex work that portrays a dystopian United States in which government regulation has run rampant and key industries are in the process of collapsing. It turns out that a mysterious character, John Galt, has been leading a strike of business leaders with plans to rebuild the world along objectivist lines.
Ultimately Rand’s advocacy of capitalism was grounded in the egoistic view that each person constitutes his or her own reason for being and ultimate good in life. This egoism, she believed, was the natural product of reason, which she regarded as the only standard by which moral judgments could properly be made. She branded altruism, the view that we should serve the interests of others, a moral evil founded on defective reasoning.
Similarly, Rand had no use for religion, arguing that Christianity rests on a basic contradiction. While conceding that Jesus was one of the great early advocates for the sanctity of the individual human being, she regarded his message – that people should love and help others before themselves – as fundamentally altruistic. This, she believed, is profoundly at odds with the inherent egoism of the human psyche, which naturally puts self before others. And this, she argued, is why Christians have never succeeded in putting their beliefs into practice, and a reason she could never abide Christianity.
Rand’s books may lack subtlety – but they have been influential
Many of my colleagues in the academy regard Rand with a mixture of disdain and envy. Few take her seriously as a philosopher. While a deeper thinker such as Adam Smith, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher, also extolls the virtues of free markets and the important role of self-interest in a flourishing society, he also recognizes that the happiness of others is vitally important to human beings.
Simply put, Smith argues that one of the deepest human aspirations is to make a difference in the lives of others. When Rand is read side by side with Smith, she comes off as simplistic, strident and utterly devoid of subtlety.
On the other hand, academics also envy Rand because of the wide influence of her ideas. A 1991 poll by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club ranked Atlas Shrugged as the second most influential book after the Bible. Approximately 30 million copies of her books have been printed, and her ideas are still more widely debated than those of virtually any member of the academy. Whatever one makes of Rand as a thinker, it is undeniable that her works have deeply influenced millions of people.
Rand and Ryan
It is important to note that Ryan is not alone in his enthusiasm for Rand’s books. Former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan was once a regular in Rand’s salon, and former Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul and his son, US Senator and presidential candidate Randall Paul, known as Rand, have expressed admiration for her philosophy. Today an organization called the Atlas Society works to promote Rand’s principles of “reason, individualism, achievement, and freedom.”
From Ryan’s point of view, there may be no inconsistency in admiring many of Rand’s ideas while resisting the notion that he is a Randian. Few 20th-century thinkers have been more passionate and uncompromising in their defense of individual rights and capitalism. Rand not only argues for such ideas philosophically but manages to embody them in fictional narratives that many readers have found enthralling. By encouraging others to read Rand, Ryan may simply be attempting to share ideas in which he believes through one of the most compelling forms he has encountered them.
Saying that Rand had some useful economic and political ideas does not, however, compel Ryan to adopt her entire philosophy lock, stock and barrel. I know people who express admiration for Rand’s literary gifts yet completely reject her egoistic account of human psychology, her promotion of the “virtue of selfishness,” and her attacks on Christianity. Rand herself was frequently guilty of deep inconsistency. For example, she promoted the primacy of individual reason and freedom, yet ruthlessly rejected friends and associates who dared disagree with her.
Perhaps Ryan and others believe that Rand captured some important truths about the proper ordering of society, including the need to restrain the powers of government in favor of individual judgment and initiative, while simultaneously recognizing deep problems with her psychology, ethics and views on religion.
Regardless of what one makes of Ryan’s politics, there is something deeply problematic about critics’ efforts to stain him with guilt by association. The fact that Ryan finds some of Rand’s ideas compelling should not prevent us from engaging his views on their own terms.