The 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged is a grandiosity in service of an ideology, rather like the Mormon temple in Silver Spring, Maryland that inspired jokesters to paint “Surrender Dorothy” on a nearby pedestrian bridge. Author Ayn Rand’s ideology is Objectivism, which makes a virtue of selfishness. William F. Buckley said he had to flog himself to read it. What drew my interest was its influence on Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan.
Ryan used to give copies of the novel to his interns for Christmas, which is odd considering Rand’s atheism. Now he disavows her influence, despite evidence like a 2009 campaign video in which he says, “Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism….”
Ryan enjoys far more affection from Republicans than Mitt Romney. Given his ascendancy, and the straight zeroes on his congressional scorecards from the Human Rights Campaign other than one 2007 vote for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, it behooves us to examine Ryan’s ideological source material.
Atlas Shrugged tells the story of the creators and innovators who make human life worthwhile being hindered by soul-crushing collectivist government even as human parasites suck the value out of their enterprises. A man named Galt leads the creative class in a strike. Along the way we encounter conspiracy, treachery, a super weapon, and heroic lovemaking.
Some of the male characters share a strong emotional bond, though there is no indication it is sexual. The late gay libertarian Paul Varnell noted that Rand supported decriminalizing homosexuality despite her personal disapproval.
Ryan sees soul-crushing collectivist government in Barack Obama’s economic policies. Touting laissez faire capitalism, Ryan ignores the government interventions that rescued our financial and automobile industries, and decries what he calls socialist tyranny. He would privatize Social Security, voucherize Medicare, and use tax policy to accelerate upward redistribution of income.
The GOP policy of privatizing profit while socializing risk is not Rand’s philosophy. The conniving mediocrities who serve as her villains are best exemplified by the Republicans’ chief backers, who buy political influence to block new technology, thwart competition, and disempower voters. Rand summoned us to reason for ourselves and “reach for what is best within us.” Today’s GOP reaches for advantage by inflaming know-nothings.
Rand’s blind spot was her scorn for altruism, which she associated with totalitarian socialism. Her exalted individualism saw nothing benign in collective effort. Rather than receive charity, the downtrodden were to be inspired by the example of her ennobled entrepreneurs. But the plot of Atlas Shrugged showed Rand’s awareness that capitalists too were capable of malign collectives. Thus, fifty years after Buckley condemned the John Birch Society, the plutocrats’ exploitation of nativist and homophobic voters has unleashed what even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie calls “the crazies.”
In contrast with the predatory One Percent stands the idea of the Talented Tenth, raised by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903 in The Souls of Black Folk. In addition to the industrial education urged by Booker T. Washington, Du Bois called for higher education to cultivate teachers and leaders who would lift the black community’s sights. The collective effort he championed helped pave the way for the rise of the black middle class.
Randian fables of radical individualism notwithstanding, American capitalists receive all manner of taxpayer-funded help. Ryan serves their unquenchable thirst while seeking to dismantle the social safety net, despite the teachings of his own Catholic Church and despite the Constitution specifying promotion of the general welfare among its stated purposes.
Our president does not deserve calumny for pointing out businesses’ reliance on public infrastructure. Nor do those of us who have struggled for our birthright of equality need lectures on self-reliance from influence peddlers and defenders of privilege.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at email@example.com.