Wednesday, November 07, 2012

And the people have spoken...?

I hope so! The fact that the Dow Jones is down 2% the day after the election is telling.

Ayn Rand's philosophy also was on ballot

Whoever prevails in Tuesday’s election, the 2012 presidential campaign should go down as a referendum on the long conservative fascination with Ayn Rand, the controversial libertarian novelist and philosopher.

Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate and former titan of private equity, embodies Rand’s belief in the moral rectitude of free-market capitalism. A secretly videotaped speech Romney gave to a private fundraising audience – in which he asserted that 47 percent of Americans were “dependent upon government” – was an excellent distillation of this worldview.

Romney’s running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, has built his political philosophy on Rand’s work; for years, he gave copies of her novels as Christmas presents and made them required reading for his staffers. His belief that the United States increasingly is divided between “makers” and “takers” informs his policy positions on everything from Medicaid to food stamps.

Ryan’s language echoes Rand’s, and it’s worth remembering how her work came to occupy such a vaunted position in modern Republican thought.

In her 1957 novel, “Atlas Shrugged,” Rand advanced a clear distinction between virtuous “producers” and unethical “looters” and “moochers.” In Rand’s view, the stability of American society was threatened by the non-productive, who used altruism to stake a claim on the wealth generated by producers.

As an alternative to this dark future, Rand proposed objectivism, her own philosophy of limited government, rationality and ethical selfishness. Only absolute laissez-faire capitalism, she argued, would give producers the freedom to work to their full potential.Rand expected her contemporaries to greet “Atlas Shrugged” as a major intellectual contribution. But critics hated the novel, calling it unreadable and worse.

Despite this criticism, “Atlas Shrugged” became a sleeper hit among generations of young conservatives and libertarians. And Rand didn’t hesitate to apply her ideas to current politics. She supported Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater in his unsuccessful 1964 run for the presidency and regularly described how objectivist principles could be applied to current events in the Objectivist Newsletter.

 Still, Rand remained at odds with mainstream conservatism. She denounced Ronald Reagan for mixing religion and politics and especially for his views on abortion. She criticized the Vietnam War and suggested the government had no right to regulate drug use. Over time, Rand’s libertarian social views came to seem less threatening and more of a sideshow to her discussion of capitalism and the morality of selfishness. Her rebellious young followers matured into today’s conservative establishment.
Ryan now emphasizes Rand’s identification of individualism versus collectivism as a defining moral issue. A refugee from Soviet Russia, Rand believed that capitalist democracy was threatened by the 20th-century rise of systems like communism and socialism. Ryan sees the same dynamic at work today, arguing that this basic distinction lies at the heart of all political problems. As a Catholic, Ryan is far from Rand on social issues. But he has been shaped profoundly by the binary picture of the world she first created in “Atlas Shrugged.”

Among the many ironies of Ryan’s attraction to Rand is that “Atlas Shrugged” depicted politicians as among the worst moochers of them all. Another is that religious readers were once among Rand’s fiercest critics. Not only did they reject her atheism, but they were troubled by the divisive language of her work. It was one thing to celebrate the winners in capitalist society; it was another to attack the losers .

Yet today, even politicians who claim a deep religious faith seem little troubled by these concerns. Rand’s division of Americans into moochers and producers, dependents and independents, is no longer controversial – it reflects conventional wisdom in the Republican Party. This election may well determine if that philosophy can withstand the scrutiny of American voters.
 Jennifer Burns, an assistant professor of history at Stanford University, is the author of “Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right.”

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