Love or hate her: Why Ayn Rand still matters, Part 2

Ayn Rand's books, especially her two major works, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, continue to sell millions of copies. And her influence on politics and popular culture is stronger than ever. Contributor Sandy Bourque outlines the philosopher's improbable rise to fame and influence, and the surprising Canadian connection which helped secure her place in the history of ideas.
Russian-born American author and philosopher Ayn Rand, smiles and stands outdoors with her arms folded, in front of the Grand Central building, midtown Manhattan, New York City. (Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images)

This episode is part 2 of a two-part series. It originally aired November 2, 2018.

The test of time

Ayn Rand was a Russian-born American novelist and philosopher who started her career writing Hollywood screenplays and later best-selling novels, all which have had an enduring influence on American culture and politics.

Almost 35 years after her death, every one of her books is still in print, including The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, as well as her non-fiction books such as The Virtue of Selfishness, with hundreds of thousands of copies being sold every year. Atlas Shrugged is still regarded as one of the most influential books in the United States, next to the Bible. Almost one-third of Americans have read it.

Swimming against the tide

In the 1950's, America was emerging from World War II and government departments were expanding like never before. People wanted programs like Social Security and old-age pensions. Critics panned Rand's books and ridiculed her ideas, but she gained an underground word-of-mouth following.

(Random House/Bobbs Merrill/New American Library)

Free Markets = Freedom of Thought

Over the course of her life (1905-1982), Rand ruthlessly attacked socialism and communism through her films and her books. Her philosophy, later known as Objectivism, championed the individual over what she derided as "collectivism."

In her book Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, Stanford professor Jennifer Burns draws on unprecedented access to Rand's private papers and the original and unedited versions of her journals. Burns examines Rand's life, her ideas, and the cultural impact of novels like Atlas Shrugged, which depicted the collapse of American society.

I think she felt that if 'Atlas Shrugged' was successful, that collapse would not come because it would awaken enough people to be able to pull back from the brink.- Jennifer Burns

Ayn Rand thought people should be self-reliant and should never depend on the government for money. She believed in private charity and thought if there were no taxes and everyone got to keep all the money they made, there would be more of it and people would naturally want to help others. 

Carrie-Ann Biondi teaches philosophy at Marymount Manhattan College in New York, and says that Rand's principle of "selfishness" is widely misunderstood.

"Most people think a selfish person is somebody who only cares about satisfying any and all of their desires to maximize having material stuff, even if it means trampling on hurting other people. Rand explicitly rejects that understanding of it. What she means by it is that you're to be the ultimate beneficiary of your action. It doesn't reduce us to base desires — having stuff and having things at any cost to ourselves and other people."

Popular misconceptions

Ayn despised libertarians. She didn't believe in a dog-eat-dog world with everyone else in it only for themselves. She saw a world with the police, the courts and the armed forces to keep society in check. But there would be no role for the government when it came to social security, public health or public education. There would be no public infrastructure or transport, no public fire service and no regulations. All of these would have to be funded privately. 

It may surprise many, but she also rejected social conservatism.

I want to make clear I'm not a conservative... if anyone destroys this country it will be the conservatives because they do not know how to preach capitalism, and because they are based on religious altruism and on that combination of ideas, you cannot save this country.- Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand and Donald Trump

There was a Rand adherent in the White House: former president, Donald Trump. Gary Weiss, investigative reporter and author of Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, says:

"Trump is an interesting character from a Randian point of view. He's the first President of the United States who said that Rand was his favourite author. So that's kind of important. He's kind of a Randian character. He's a builder — that's why he said he likes The Fountainhead. But he's anti-intellectual: that kind of wipes out everything else from a Randian perspective. It's hard to believe that Trump ever actually read Rand."

But Trump — like politicians before him — cherry picks Rand's ideas to suit his own ends. Ayn Rand believed in free-trade, was pro-choice and argued against racism. She was absolutely against any form of violence.

The global reach of Ayn Rand

From India to China, many business leaders report being motivated by Atlas Shrugged. Facebook's first major investor, Peter Thiel, is a Randian. Steve Jobs is said to have viewed Atlas Shrugged as one of his "guides in life."

What does this mean in the context of today's world? How will Ayn Rand live on? Part Two this series looks at Ayn Rand's legacy and asks one central question: why does she still matter? 

Guests in this episode:

  • Jennifer Burns is an associate professor of history at Stanford University and a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institute, and author of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right.
  • Gary Weiss is an investigative journalist and author of Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul.
  • Carrie-Ann Biondi is an associate professor of philosophy at Marymount Manhattan College in New York.
  • Paul Kidder is a professor of philosophy and Director of the Honours Program at Seattle University in Washington D.C.
  • Archival interviews with Barbara and Nathaniel Branden are from Reason TV and The Atlas Society. Barbara Branden continued writing and lecturing until she died in 2013 at age 84. Nathaniel Branden became the author of 20 books on the psychology of self-esteem, romantic love and on the life of Ayn Rand. His work has been translated into 18 languages and sold more than four million copies.  He died in 2014 at age 84.
  • Readings in this series are by Lisa Godfrey, Jeff Goodes, Chris Howden, Roxana Spicer and Zoia Novikova.

Further reading:

  • Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and The American Right by Jennifer Burns published by Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul by Gary Weiss published by St. Martin's Press, 2012.
  • Letters of Ayn Rand by Michael C. Berliner published by Dutton, 1995.
  • My Years with Ayn Rand by Nathaniel Brandon published by Wiley, 1999.

Related websites:

**This episode was produced by Sandy Bourque and Greg Kelly. 

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