In the summer of 1921, a young Ayn Rand saw Moscow for the first time. “I remember standing on a square,” she would later recall. “And it suddenly struck me. . . . ‘How enormous it is, and how many people, and it’s just one city’ . . . . I suddenly had the concrete sense of how many large cities there were in the world—and I had to address all of them. All of those numbers had to hear of me, and of what I was going to say. And the feeling was marvelously solemn.”
Today, on the 107th anniversary of her birth, it’s hard to doubt that the world has indeed heard of Ayn Rand. Her books—including titles like "The Fountainhead" and "The Virtue of Selfishness"—have sold nearly 30 million copies, with sales of her 1,100-page opus, "Atlas Shrugged," surpassing a million copies in the last three years alone.
Rand has clearly inspired millions. But a debate has emerged over the question of Rand’s political influence, with many commentators claiming her ideas have played a key role in shaping the political landscape. As former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said in 2011, “Ayn Rand has a large and growing influence on American politics.”
But to gauge Rand’s influence, we need to know more about her views than the sound bytes we’re typically offered.
Rand is usually thought of as a political philosopher, but that is not how she viewed herself. “I am primarily the creator of a new code of morality,” she once said. Whereas previous moral codes bestowed sainthood on those who served and sacrificed for others, Rand’s morality extolled “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
This is the philosophy embodied by fictional characters such as Hank Rearden, the industrialist in "Atlas Shrugged," who—in the tradition of Thomas Edison—creates a new metal that’s stronger and cheaper than steel, and who—in the tradition of countless entrepreneurs—struggles to produce his revolutionary product in the face of government obstacles. At one point, Rearden is brought to trial for violating the government’s economic edicts, and he proudly defends his right to produce and prosper:
“I work for nothing but my own profit,” he says, “which I make by selling a product they need to men who are willing and able to buy it. I do not produce it for their benefit at the expense of mine, and they do not buy it for my benefit at the expense of theirs. . . . I made my money by my own effort, in free exchange and through the voluntary consent of every man I dealt with. . . . I refuse to apologize for my ability—I refuse to apologize for my success—I refuse to apologize for my money.”
It is this moral outlook that underlies Rand’s advocacy of free markets, and it suggests where those looking for Rand’s influence on today’s politics can see it.
Above all, you can see it in the moral outrage of the Tea Party activists, many of whom carry signs championing Rand’s works and ideas.
Recall the Rick Santelli rant that started it all: “This is America. How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills, raise their hand? . . . . We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m going to start organizing. . . . at the end of the day, I’m an Ayn Rander.”
But what you don’t yet see is large numbers of people who have actually grasped the moral and political position Rand defined. Even among the Tea Party activists, there exists no positive, principled platform challenging today’s status quo.
This is why you also find at their gatherings signs like “Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare.” Apparently, paying for your neighbor’s mortgage is bad, but paying for his health care is just fine.
Rand has helped many people see that something has gone wrong in America. But they haven’t yet understood the source of the problem or Rand’s radical solution.
A political movement truly shaped by Rand’s ideas would not flinch, as Republicans and Tea Partiers do, from charges that it is the mouthpiece of the rich and the mean-spirited. It would declare that it is a movement for all producers, proudly embracing the innovative rich, the ambitious poor, and everyone in between. If you earn your wealth through production and voluntary trade, a Rand-inspired political movement would affirm that it is yours by right.
And instead of looking at programs like Social Security and Medicaid only from the recipients’ point of view, a Rand-inspired political movement would point to the great injustice committed against those who are forced to provide retirement and medical care to others. It would ask: by what right does the government seize wealth from some people so it can dole out unearned rewards to others? Nothing, it would declare, is more mean-spirited than depriving an individual of his property and liberty.
In other words, a Rand-inspired political movement would be a principled movement. It would champion laissez-faire capitalism—the total separation of state and economics—as the only system that fully protects the rational and productive individual, securing his moral and political right to pursue his own happiness.
To what extent has Ayn Rand shaped our political landscape? So far, not nearly enough.