Foolish Policy Inspiration

My brief encounter with Ayn Rand

Posted Aug 18, 2012

The ascension of Congressman Paul Ryan to be the putative Republican candidate for Vice President has brought forth a number of comments about his long-running infatuation with the ideas of Ayn Rand. Ms. Rand, born in Russia in 1905 as Alisa Rosenbaum, emigrated to the United States in 1925, where she achieved success, and eventual fame, as a Hollywood screenwriter, novelist and inventor of a philosophical system that she named Objectivism. This philosophical system, which she characterized by such terms as “ethical egotism” and “rational selfishness.” was initially reflected in her best-selling novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s writings glorified the role of the free and creative individual, in contrast to the collective state and its tendencies towards controlling and conforming totalitarianism. Obviously motivated by her suffering under Soviet Communism (which confiscated her father’s successful business and expelled her from film school as a bourgeois), Ms. Rand glorified unfettered capitalism, as reflected in the final scene in Atlas Shrugged, in which the book’s protagonist, John Galt, traced a dollar sign in the earth.

Ms. Rand’s portrayal of rich and successful people as an oppressed minority, and unfettered Capitalism as the path to greatest happiness, has obvious resonance to libertarians, such as the Tea Party favorite Paul Ryan, and other proponents of extreme economic deregulation, such as the economist Alan Greenspan (no relation, but a question I get asked every time I hand a store clerk my credit card). After Ms. Rand relocated in 1951 from Los Angeles to New York, she established a weekend discussion group (jokingly referred to as the “collectivity”) in which various admirers, such as Alan Greenspan (who attended her 1982 funeral, which was adorned by a six-foot floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign), met to hear her read her latest works. One of these admirers, a young psychotherapist named Nathaniel Branden, established a seminar institute to promote Ms. Rand’s philosophical ideas. Mr. Branden, who said he was coerced into becoming Ayn Rand’s lover, later broke with her and expressed regret over having participated in what he termed a cult of personality.

A source of disappointment to Ayn Rand was the fact that her books and ideas were not taken seriously, either as literature or as philosophy, by university-based scholars. It was, therefore, pleasing to her when my friend Lyman Heine and I invited her, in 1961 or 1962, to speak at a meeting of a public affairs club that we co-chaired at Johns Hopkins University. I was later told by a biographer of Ms. Rand that this event was important to her as a first indication of academic respectability, although in reality, it was not the university that invited her, but just two undergraduates, one of whom (me) barely even knew who she was. Ms. Rand arrived in a chauffeur-driven limousine, attended by her husband Frank O’ Connor and her Boswellian popularizer, Nathaniel Branden. Lyman and I arranged for her to speak in the university’s largest lecture hall, after which we hosted her at a dinner at the university’s faculty club, where the future billionaire capitalist Michael Bloomberg worked as a parking lot attendant.

Unfortunately, although the auditorium was packed, Ms. Rand received a generally negative response, as reflected in the derisive tone of most of the questions directed at her from the audience. After the event was over, I asked one very distinguished-looking gentleman how he enjoyed the (free-of-charge) talk and he replied that it was “worth the price of admission.” The thing that most sticks out in my mind about the talk was Rand’s insistence that Sputnik (the satellite which in 1957 enabled the Soviet Union to beat the United States in putting an object into a space orbit) was a lie fabricated by the Russians to create the illusion that they actually possessed technological and industrial competence. When asked what evidence she possessed for this extreme claim, her answer was “I know the Russians, and they are incapable of pulling off such a feat." (What Ms. Rand apparently did not know is that the Russian space program, as was the Americans', was headed by captured German scientists, as reflected in Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev’s famous boast to John F. Kennedy that ‘“our Nazis and better than your Nazis”).

Although I don’t remember much about the talk other than the Sputnik denial (which she restated several times), I remember more about her behavior during dinner and at the guest house where the ménage a trois was staying. The most striking thing about her post-lecture demeanor was her repeatedly asking the question “did I do all right?” to which her husband and Mr. Branden had to continually reassure her that she performed admirably. To me, it was extremely ironic that a woman who so glorified the confident egotism of strong individuals who couldn’t care less about the opinions of others, was herself so insecure and needing of approval from others.

As for Congressman Ryan and his admiration for Ms. Rand’s political views (at one time, he handed out copies of Atlas Shrugged as holiday presents to his staff), he has been forced to back off from any claim to still being a disciple of Ayn Rand. That is because as a “rational” libertarian, Ms. Rand took three positions that are problematic for a Catholic Republican like Mr. Ryan: (a) a strong identification with atheism, (b) a very public advocacy of abortion rights, and (c) a vehement opposition to the use of military force, such as in Vietnam (a war she publicly denounced).

While it is clear how a philosophy marked by a rejection of collective responsibility for others (what Rand dismissed as “ethical altruism”) would appeal to someone with Ryan’s anti-government leanings, there is another, more fundamental similarity between the two individuals. That has to do with a tendency to believe the truth of an assertion without requiring empirical proof or, for that matter, even in the face of considerable evidence contradicting the assertion. In the case of Ayn Rand, there is the example of her unshakable belief that the Soviets were lying about Sputnik, in spite of the ease with which she could have solicited reliable information from trustworthy experts who would have told that her belief was false. In the case of Congressman Ryan, there is his belief that cutting income taxes, especially for the rich, is the path to balancing the Federal budget, in spite of the fact that on the several occasions when that policy has been followed, it has had exactly the opposite effect.

However smart one is (and Rand obviously had a high IQ, as clearly also is true of the Congressman), a failure to acknowledge obvious reality is a form of stupidity. The driving force here obviously is affect, namely the holding of emotionally charged beliefs that are articles of quasi-religious faith and that are so strong that they cannot be questioned. In the case of Ayn Rand, the emotionally-charged belief that could not be questioned was that the Russians were lying incompetents, while in the case of Congressman Ryan and his Tea Party supporters, the emotionally-charged belief that cannot be questioned is that taxes are bad and cutting them is always good. In the face of such rigidly held beliefs, even the smartest among us will stubbornly hold onto positions that can only be described as foolish.

                Copyright Stephen Greenspan