Sometime in the 1980s, my cousin Marc gave me a book called It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand, by Jerome Tuccille. At the time in spoke to me: an adolescent enamored by Rand's fiction and philosophy, yet ready for something more. For the author and for my cousin, the adult version of Rand's ideas could be found in the Libertarian Party.
I write "adult version," because in some sense I understood myself as having outgrown what I came to see as Rand's simplistic philosophy. In college in the late 1980s, I first turned to Libertarianism and then became a Progressive. And thus I am amazed at her continued and even revitalized place in our culture. Did we not all outgrow her? Apparently not.
Though Rand, who passed away in 1982, never quite fell from popularity, her name has been invoked with increasing frequency over the last two or three years -- both by anti-Obama protestors and cable television talking heads. About a year and a half ago, two new biographies of her came out, one of which was featured on the cover of the Book Review section of The New York Times. And now we have the recently released first part of a projected three-part film adaptation of Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged. And events such as Ron Paul's declaration of his Presidential candidacy recall to me my years as a fan of Rand's.
Does Ayn Rand really have much to say to us today? As a former admirer, I can share my reflections.
Like a fair number of adolescents, I discovered The Fountainhead, a novel that swept me away, and then the massive Atlas Shrugged. Rand created powerful, strong, proud characters. No doubt her stories -- of bold and smart individualists, persevering against weaker people trying to sap their creativity -- gave hope to many young boys (and some girls) trying to assert themselves and to find certainty in an often alienating world.
And I fell for it: a simplistic, black and white view of the world, an unambiguous morality rooted in individualism. I arrived in Boston for college and looking for that next step, I reached out to actual Libertarians, members of a political group seeking a third party presence in government, in order to minimize that very government.
Within months, however, my world was thrown into chaos. This was in large part due to a seminar in Anthropology and Comparative Religion. I learned about other cultures and other ways of thinking, about language and meaning. I was thrust outside of my own narrow perspective, and suddenly I found I could no longer articulate a compelling defense of Libertarianism or Randian Objectivism. I had entered university as an Objectivist and become transformed into a Cultural Relativist.
It took a few years, but in time I abandoned that Cultural Relativism, though by no means the broad perspective it gave me. Nor did I abandon the Progressive politics, for that matter.
As for Libertarianism, I want to make clear that although I no longer espouse it, I do think it has its merits and can make an important contribution to our political culture. Libertarianism raises challenging questions about the proper role of government. I do not equate it with what I take to be the worldview of Ayn Rand.
Ayn Rand's world is one without community, a place where rugged individuals achieve success all on their own. Rand is therefore blind to the societal infrastructure that makes the accumulation of wealth possible and makes a polity stable enough for an economy to function. I would suggest that the logical outcome of Rand's philosophy is a fractured world, where the wealthy pay paramilitary forces to protect them in their gated communities. It is a world not of some ideal, free market competition, but one in which the absence of regulations leads to monopolization, the further concentration of wealth, and the breakdown of consumer protections. And in that sort of world, the production of wealth becomes more difficult, even for the wealthy. As trite as the phrase has become, it does take a village. Individual success and triumph often requires individual initiative and perseverance, but it also depends upon so much else and so many other people to create and maintain the foundations of a stable society.
Rand's lone individual is an illusion that must be challenged, not only because it is a lie, but because it will never work, at least not in the long run. If Ron and Rand Paul and the like achieve their goals, we will not see renewed prosperity, but rather the fraying of our society and economy, as healthcare and then education and then even fire and police protection become privatized. The inequalities of opportunity will only grow, and the dream of American mobility, already not as realistic a dream as many people imagine, will become a genuine fantasy.
At that moment when my world shattered, it was no longer self-evident why Rand's principle of individualism was absolute, no idea in her atheistic world should compel anyone else, let alone society, to be bound by it. I think the balance is tricky and difficult -- I am by no means opposed to individual rights -- but I would argue, I have argued, that communal values also have a claim upon us, and we may indeed be responsible for one another, ideally or practically, if we wish to maintain a vibrant and prosperous society.
(Note: An earlier version of this essay previously appeared in the Rhode Island Jewish Voice & Herald.)