The images of college students thronging to Ron Paul campaign events inspire a nostalgic twinge in me. Once I upon a time, I, too, needed nothing more in life than to be left free to achieve. I was oppressed by forces all around seeking to impose mediocrity, stymie the producers, and redistribute wealth. I was a Libertarian, at least until graduation.
I still remember my first brush with Ayn Rand. At the end of a semester, a professor passed out a thick photocopy of John Galt's speech. It was electricity on paper. I learned that everyone who wanted something from me was a leech. Every duty imposed without my voluntary assent was extortion. It was my moral responsibility to evaluate everyone else entirely in terms of their worth to me. It was cool.
There's irony in the appeal of hardcore Libertarianism on college campuses. Sure, college students are (in principle, at least) the cream of our education system, but they're also the most uniformly dependent "adult" population outside prison.
With tuition now ranging from $20,000 to $50,000 a year, virtually none of them are paying their own way. Unless they've made some serious scratch as a child star or a drug dealer, they are getting their daily bread from either parents, government-facilitated loans, or the generosity of their school's donors. The overwhelming majority of them will grind through many post-graduate years waiting tables before they find any credible foothold in the "producer class."
Even at the peak of my enthusiasm for Rand, it occurred to me that someone who actually took this stuff seriously could wreak havoc. At the time, though, that was a remote concern. The fear that Ayn Rand's values might be crossbred with religious fundamentalism to create some Neo-Confederate political mutant that would eat the Republican Party would have sounded loony, like predicting that terrorists might fly planes into the World Trade Center.
When I read Rand now, the words are drowned out by one question ringing over and over in my head: Did this woman have a mother? She writes as though she hatched fully formed, scales shimmering in the sunlight, ready on day one to squeeze the breath from her prey. Whatever else might dent the gleaming universal completeness of Objectivism, nothing stops it in its tracks quite like human biology.
As Rand herself acknowledges, we are each just a soft pink morsel with no armor, weak claws, and nearly useless teeth. She insists that it is our minds that make us dominant, but those minds emerge into the world utterly dependent on someone else with nothing to offer in a bargain.
And what happens to all that voluntary exchange of value when people get sick, or when it comes time to build a sewer system, or someone needs to clean up the toxic waste from Dagny Taggart's factories? Galt's Gulch is a cruel, dirty hole, no fit place for a student.
Life outside the university tends to beat the Objectivism out of just about anyone with a minimal willingness to pay attention. However, there are some valuable lessons I learned from Ayn Rand. I should strive to deliver authentic value in any interaction. There truly is an innate satisfaction from working hard and doing a job, any job, with integrity and quality. And, depressing as it may be, many of the people who seem in greatest need of help are in fact beyond helping.
Mostly, though, I just learned something I should have already known: that there is no one model for the universe that holds true in every circumstance. There is no one philosophy that can successfully strip life of its frustrating ambiguities. You never stop discovering new questions, and you never lose the obligation to cope with complexity.
So, to all those college students who are finding "love" spelled backward in the word "Revolution," ah... to live those days again. I look forward to having you join us out here and find a way to support yourselves. Your parents (remember them?) will be so proud.