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.