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‘Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Great Recession’

7 September, 2010 (10:24) | Ayn Rand, Economics, Financial Crisis (2007-09), Modern Life, Religion | By: Peter Kinder

How can Ayn Rand continue to capture American imaginations? This question has troubled Gary Moore for a generation. His new article, ‘Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Great Recession’ appears in the September issue of Christianity Today.

An old friend, Gary has written well on faith and finance for as long as I’ve been in socially responsible investing. More importantly, he has worked with individual investors, church communities and religious institutions. Few understand these investors – these people — as well as Gary.

Why does this outspoken atheist, Ayn Rand, speak to them and other Americans so powerfully?

Born in 1905 in Russia under the Czars, she escaped the commissars in 1926. The daughter of a St. Petersburg pharmacist, her experience of early Soviet rule gave impetus to a world view that is, apparently, its antithesis.

Rand extols the right of the individual to overcome social and political norms – the Lilliputian strings tying down a god-like Gulliver – that restrain, I might say, the triumph of the will. Her Lilliputians aren’t Minutemen aroused to protect their island, but bureaucrats, politicians and those in moral authority – the undeserving upper middle class.

Rand’s novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, have sold millions of copies each. Her evangelist-like character, John Galt, has passed into American English as a symbol of egoism. Her philosophical writings and economic dicta have earned her acolytes such as long-time Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan. The Ayn Rand Institute maintains an excellent website devoted to spreading her creed, Objectivism.

Rand summed up her vision of the individual’s relation to society in the title of her 1964 book, The Virtue of Selfishness. It is a book even those who soldier through her famous novels would find unreadable. I found it repugnant, repellant.

Note what I implied in the last paragraph. People who’ve read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged typically aren’t discriminating enough to read Rand’s philosophy. But, I have. And, I can’t believe how dumb they are.

A fairly standard reaction amongst people of my persuasion, that is. It’s also useless to an understanding of Rand’s continuing importance in America today. And, I believe, understanding her deep resonance is a key to finding an antidote for the toxins poisoning American political life.

Rand taps a stream of American self-belief summed up by financial gurus at the bursting point of every bubble: ‘This time, it’s different.’ We wisemen shake our heads in disbelief at the explosion’s carnage without understanding why anyone – much less the home-buying, investing public – could believe something that’s always untrue.

The answer is, they don’t hear the cant. Their inner ear says, ‘Right! I’m different.’ Those other guys may be all in this together, but I’m not. This belief plays well in the small-shopkeeping class into which Rand was born.  As the antithesis to Bolshevism, class — hers and her concept of class structure —  is as important to  Rand’s views as it is to any Soviet realist.  It is enqually critical to understanding her abhorers and admirers.

It is all too easy to dismiss her admirers as the fuel – the gulls — for Mel Brooks comedies. Collier County, Florida, has huge subdivisions built on little more than their unfounded hopes. But there is a drive here much more important than mere avarice. It is a vision of what an American is, what an individual can be.

Against this core belief in personal exceptionalism – despite all the evidence in family and community — American progressives have found little to offer. Actually, we haven’t a clue to getting to something to offer. Community solutions based on European – or even Canadian — models don’t attract here. Healthcare is only one example.

Worse, as Jonathan Franzen says in his new novel, Freedom: ‘The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.’ One thing we know for certain: the dream soured in 2007; it is curdling now.

Gary Moore shows traditional Christianity is failing as badly as progressivism in offering persuasive alternatives to Randian thinking. No one concerned about our country’s direction should fail to read him.

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Comment from Gary Moore
Time 2010/09/07 at 12:05

Peter:

You are so amazingly gracious you should have been a Lutheran! I’m deeply appreciative for the kind words; but readers should know that your book Ethical
Investing put me on this road, for better or worse!

Gary Moore

Comment from Ralph Meima
Time 2010/09/25 at 23:57

Peter,
This essay struck me in two ways. First, when I was in college, I was an avid Rand fan for a year or two. I cannot remember who got me started – I was at an engineering school in the late ’70s where/when no one was reading anything political or philosophical – but I can clearly recall a few breast-swelling, lump-in-throat, moist-eyed moments reading Rand when I suddenly “realized” that hers was the key to the triumph of morality and reason. Such as when John Galt (in Atlas Shrugged), says “The way is clear. We are going back to the world.” All my 19-year-old self wanted to do was jump into that scene and march with Galt’s triumphant return, “the motor of the world” starting to hum again.

Why a young middle-class son of DC’s suburbs and civil servant parents, who had never faced real hardship, would thrill to Rand’s rhetoric, I do not fully understand. It’s a bit embarrassing now. There is a message of personal power in it, along with salvation. There is also irresistible bait for the Beast of Dehumanization, which turns people who are different and unfamiliar (like, in my own early adult case, blue-collar workers, minorities, and rural people) into perceived collectives, acting like herds and devoid of morally, intellectually independent people like I supposed I was.

The other aspect that struck me, which I have thought a lot about but don’t have any easy conclusions for, has to do with the 14 years I lived in Sweden, where I sometimes found myself at odds with the members and mores of a clearly more collectivist society. No room for anecdotes here, but Americans definitely are trained to think and act in more egotistical ways, and I can imagine a young Ayn Rand seeking revenge for such oppression in her Russian youth through her embrace of a monumentalized, stylized American opposite. Groupy societies are oppressive. In Sweden, no one has curtains in their windows because they don’t want anyone to think they have anything to hide or are any different from anyone else. (And that’s just the tip of the collectivistic, conformist iceberg.) So, if Rand’s writings were actually a life-long work-out of her rejection of the collectivistic society she was born into, why do some Americans with totally unrelated life-experience contexts (i.e., no experience of European collectivism) identify with her message? This looks like a virulent, dysfunctional mismatch between message and meaning, the ideological equivalent of hemoglobin’s deadly affinity for carbon monoxide.

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Time 2011/08/07 at 00:34

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