Ayn Rand, Rand Paul and Utopian Schemes

May 25, 2010 | 8 books mentioned 42 5 min read

Not long ago my father emailed me a reading suggestion: Ayn Rand.  He knew I was completing a book about the history of utopian thought – a project that stemmed from the fact that my father raised me on a street called Utopia Road – and he recognized Rand as falling within the constraints of the genre.  He liked her, he said.  He’d turned up his nose at her for fifty years, and regretted it.  He claimed Rand’s utopian avatar, John Galt, reminded him of me.

coverI declined the suggestion.  My father is an avid reader, but politically we’re nothing alike.  He’s been trying to get me to read Ann Coulter and Liberal Fascism for years.  I explained that I wasn’t likely to fall for Rand’s philosophy, and if he wanted to read a conservative utopia he should try Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia. (Islandia’s “conservatism” dates from a few decades back, when conservatism wasn’t so far from conservation – it’s all about preservation of the local in the face of globalization.)

My father wasn’t quite ready to let it go.  When my girlfriend and I visited a short time later, he pulled out a Rand book, and dared me to read just one paragraph – part of a paragraph!  As it happens, that one tiny slice of prose demonstrated that Ayn Rand wasn’t utopian at all; she was something much worse.

And all of this matters because we now have a candidate for the senate who is not only a follower of Rand, but named for her.[1]

coverHere’s the chunk of writing my father asked me to read, from an introduction to an anniversary edition of Atlas Shrugged.

Incidentally, a sideline observation: if creative fiction writing is a process of translating an abstraction into the concrete, there are three possible grades of such writing: translating an old (known) abstraction (theme or thesis) through the medium of old fiction means, (that is, characters, events or situations used before for that same purpose, that same translation) – this is most of the popular trash; translating an old abstraction through new, original fiction means – this is most of the good literature; creating a new, original abstraction, and translating it through new, original means.  This, as far as I know, is only me – my kind of fiction writing.

I read this a couple times – you sort of have to; it’s terrible – and then I attacked it.  “Incidentally, a sidelong observation:” is redundant, I said.  So is “creative fiction writing.”  Rand’s “if/then” lacks a “then,” and there’s no opportunity to challenge the premise that fiction makes the abstract concrete.  Most would argue the opposite, if they even agreed to think about it in these terms.  Ditto the suggestion that a thesis can or should be abstract.  Too, the punctuation of the passage is more than bad – it’s actually attempting to beguile the reader.  Heavy, complex thinking requires complicated punctuation, Rand wants us to think, so the presence of complicated punctuation must indicate that the meaning here is heavy and complex.  Actually, it’s not.

And that’s about as far as I got before my father and I wound up not in a screaming match, exactly – but something more like a hissing match.  We hissed because the things we said were so vile no even we wanted to give them full voice.

“You used to be a writer,” my father hissed.  “Now you’re just an elitist.”


But, wait – writers are often elitists, aren’t they?  Wasn’t he wrong in suggesting that you sacrifice the first in becoming the second?  And anyway, wasn’t Ayn Rand being at least a little elitist in claiming that her fiction is the only fiction that says new things in a new way?

More than her redundancies or punctuation, that’s the problem – because her elitism is not earned.  She’s not, in fact, saying new things in a new way.  Even my father knew this.  He thought of her as utopian, which means she was operating within the boundaries of an established tradition.  And he liked the book because he recognized the ideas in it – they weren’t new either.  Atlas Shrugged is “known” ideas delivered in a “known” way.  By Rand’s definition it’s “popular trash,” which pretty well describes the book’s publishing history.

And that’s what throws Ayn Rand into such a peculiar light today, when her philosophy is perhaps closer than it’s ever been to achieving actual power.

It’s fashionable at the moment to conflate Glenn Beck, the Tea Party movement, and, now, Rand Paul.  What’s not been discussed so far is the wide range of open religious sentiment apparent in all of these.  Ayn Rand was a famous atheist.  Glenn Beck is a curious and dangerous mélange of talking head and televangelist.  And the Tea Party wants to regard the Constitution as sacred document.

There’s a reason they’re all in bed together.

In In Utopia I make the argument that extreme conservative utopias (everything from Theodore Hertzka’s Freeland to a range of twentieth century novels suggesting that the path to peace runs through holocaust) are not really utopias at all.  Rather, they are reconciliations to an imperfect world.  These “utopias” reject the idea that government or planning of any kind can make the world a better place.  Much better is a policy of not planning, small government, the invisible arm of the market, social Darwinism as nature’s intent, and so forth.  In short, no plan is a better plan.

Here’s why that’s not utopian: that’s how civilization started.  When cities emerged, when people began to live in close quarters and form communities, no one had a plan for how they should proceed.  The result was Athens, brimming with disease, filth, and crime.  Utopian thought begins with Plato and Aristotle offering up improvements – visions of planned societies.

“It has justly been said,” Martin Buber wrote, “that in a positive sense every planning intellect is utopian.”

So why can’t planning for no plan also be a plan?  Well, it sort of is – but it’s a plan that assumes chaos will produce a perfect order.  Who emerges from the chaos?  The elites.  Whether it’s greed repackaged as laissez-faire or racism thinly disguised as exceptionalism, conservative “utopias” rationalize worlds where the better few get the most while the numerous many struggle with little.  Anymore, who really believes this makes the world better?

coverThese days, not-planning-as-plan isn’t even earnestly meant.  Ayn Rand was recently the subject of a new biography, and what her life reveals is that she has a whole lot more in common with L. Ron Hubbard (her career as a screenwriter matches Hubbard’s as a sci-fi guy) than she does with Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, or a host of earnest utopians who used an old literary genre to say some new things that did, in fact, make the world a better place.

It’s Hubbard that links Rand back to Beck and the Tea Party.  They’re all fundamentalists of one kind or another, and they are the reason “utopia” is now largely synonymous with “scheme.”  Like any false prophet, Rand must convince us that her message is new and true (when it’s old and false), and the fake sophistication of her language is as insidious as Glenn Beck’s alligator tears.  These false utopians strive not to inspire action and progress, but to recruit followers.  They found one in Ron Paul, and now we’re on to the second generation.

I’ll finish with the end of my own two-generation story.

After my father and I finished hissing at each other, my father, to his credit, agreed to read Islandia. I had to pester him by email a little, but he eventually ordered the book.  A month passed before he wrote to say he’d loved it, every word, he ate it up – could I recommend more?

My heart swelled.  This is what books – utopias or no – should do.

I told him to read Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. There’s a little utopia in each of them.

I’ve not heard back from my father since, but I have high hopes.

Back | 1. Note: Rand Paul himself has denied that he was formally named for Ayn Rand, so I’m taking some liberty here.  He has claimed that he was named Randal at birth, went by Randy for much of his life, and his wife started calling him Rand.  At the same time, he calls himself a “big fan” of Ayn Rand’s work, and admits that his father met the author.  Rand Paul may not have been formally named for Rand, but his embrace of even a nickname amounts to an informal self-naming that is intended as homage – like a monk or a pope.

is the author of a number of books, including The Anarcha Quest, a dual biography of the "father" and "mother" of gynecology, which will be published next year. He sort of lives in New York.


  1. > These false utopians strive not to inspire action and progress, but to recruit followers. They found one in Ron Paul, and now we’re on to the second generation.

    Oh wow. You could not be more wrong. Firstly, as a life-long objectivist, I assure you that the “randroids”, e.g. Objectivists who deify Rand, are far less common than claimed. To assume her novels or ethics are Vox Dei is to entirely miss the point of reality being the arbiter of truth. I’ve met a few here and there, but they are hardly as cultish as your median Greenpeace activist.

    Secondly, Ron Paul unequivocally “inspired action and progress”, and wasn’t even remotely interested in recruiting “followers”. There’s hundreds of hours of youtube vids where he repeatedly says how surprised he is about his support. Please recall that it was an ongoing complaint that the grassroots could NOT get central direction from the campaign – they couldn’t figure out how to utilize us nearly as well as we could organize ourselves, and if they tried to steer us into something foolish, they would not have succeeded.

    > Rand Paul may not have been formally named for Rand, but his embrace of even a nickname amounts to an informal self-naming that is intended as homage

    Do some research. Sheesh. His name’s Randall, he was called Randy most of his life, and decided in adulthood that maybe the Y was a bit diminutive. It has nothing/nada/zip to do with Ayn.

  2. So did you actually read Atlas Shrugged before writing your book or blogging on whether or not its new? I’m with your father on this one and the fact that he liked Islandia doesn’t absolve you.

  3. Well, what’s the suggestion here? That you cannot reject an author simply because he/she claims to have the only answer you need? I assume, then, that you will next purchase Dianetics, because what if Hubbard is right? And after him, Mary Baker Eddy. And then Joseph Smith? At what point do you become discerning not only in what you read, but what you choose to read?

  4. The real argument in the Paul CRA controversy is whether government should get involved in businesses when direct harm is not clear. Smoking causes direct harm to employees, making anti-smoking laws good. Kicking people out of a restaurant because of the color of their skin is direct harm…although it can be said that this is better than secretly spitting in their food which may have happened as a result of the CRA in the mid 60s in the south. Giving hormones to cattle before slaughter causes direct harm to people, so we finally need a new law on that. But did those black secret service agents really deserve $54M because they said a bad Denny’s management hadn’t served them because of the color of their skin? Is that as easily proven as smoke and hormones? Does every Democrat-voting male agree with all sex harassment laws no matter what the fine print says? Is it really harmful to have a “power differential relationship”? That becomes (sadly) a matter of opinion where smoke, asbestos and hormones should certainly not be. And you know men don’t get a say in writing such laws.

    Did dating sites need to be regulated by IMBRA in 2005 if more than 50% of the women on them were non-American, meaning foreign women are like children and need to see men’s background checks before communication could occur? To pass that last law, Congress (both the Democrats and Neoconservative Republicans) refused to let men or even the dating agencies speak -relying only on the testimony of the NOW at a kangaroo court hearing where the accused, American men, were neither allowed nor informed of the hearing taking place – and the US Senate just accepted the anecdote that one man had killed a foreign-born wife who had used him for a green card. The law was passed with only Ron Paul and Tom Tancredo dissenting and it was admitted in court later that 99.999% of men are not dangerous to women, but 0.00001% of men could be so everyone has to be regulated in their communications with foreigners. Where is the “direct harm” being regulated there?

    I note here that supposed conservatives like Sam Brownback were the worst offenders in all this uneven “protection” of prized constituents at the cost of non-prized constituents. The Democrats want to impress the NOW (and Democrat men who disagree with them are ignored) and the GOP wants to impress church-going women at the expense of men who might not agree with their world-view (and Rand Paul is probably not going to be an exception). Note that a Bush Junior appointed federal judged remarked about IMBRA on 5/26/06 “There is no fundamental liberty interest in an American contacting a foreigner”.

    What Rand Paul could be saying more eloquently is that the CRA might have been necessary but it started a slippery slope to ridiculous laws like the one I just mentioned. But he will probably put his foot in his mouth more and talk about BP having had the right to ignore a very real threat that could effect hundreds of millions of people.

    It is upsetting to see the Rand Paul discussion fall to both extremes without people getting their hands dirty by discussing where the left (and neoconservative + religious lawmakers on the right for that matter) have forgotten “direct harm” in making regulatory laws and where both the liberals and conservatives on the Supreme Court often think Congress can do whatever it wants as long as they personally agree on any one issue and hate a minority (in the above case white males who travel internationally).

    Please, let’s see some discussion showing the strength of both sides in the Ayn Rand debate. The US two party system really is the pits.

  5. Good post JC. Suggest as a companion volume to your own (good luck with it by the way) the English philosopher John Gray’s “Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia”. It’s excellent and speaks to many of the concerns you have raised.

    PS Rand was a lunatic.

  6. It is because of the abuse by both US political parties of the concept of the Commerce Clause and CRA that it is great that Rand Paul has at least started a discussion. Disagreeing with the subsequent abuse of the CRA is not the same as saying one would have voted against at least a temporary law in 1964.

    And heck, men have had a lot to fear from Republicans and even Tea Party types regulating business and private behavior recently. How about the sting operations where men are arrested just for agreeing to go to a room with a female policewoman. Where is the direct harm in that (and where is the proof he would have done anything more than talk to her)? Oh yes, Marxism (aka modern evangelical church ideology) says she represented someone who could not think for herself and the man was, therefore, exploiting her (even if his intention was to talk her into finding a better job). Regulating the *customers* of businesses has been a real trend among the religious right types.

    On personal behavior regulation, you also don’t need to look beyond heterosexuals for material to challenge the Tea Party movement: On any celebrity site discussing Tiger Woods or other “cheating husbands” watch as women identifying themselves as “Tea Party Leaders” talk about how such men need to be financially destroyed. You will hear crickets at a Tea Party meeting if a man suggests that maybe Sarah Palin should not have gotten a judge to force 19 year old Levi to pay Bristol a crippling and unnecessary $1700 per month in child support. The Massachusetts Alimony for Life law that has men living in garages and unable to date anyone new? Crickets as well.

    Freedom politics?

    If only the Tea Party could get its act together…

  7. I imagine this massive office building, rooms upon rooms, each filled with hard-core true believers from every imaginable group, all scouring the Internet, all day, every day, looking for the most miniscule slight against their beliefs, ready with tuneless rants to post in response….

    But anyway, I liked the post J.C. I realized that I really need to get around to buying one of your books when I read the article title, was a little interested, then saw you wrote it and immediatly clicked and started reading.

  8. If only the left wing liberal utopics could “get their acts together” and perhaps turn their critique inward.! Forcing the tax payers to fund public health care (yet another form of welfare) is about as utopic as it gets. I guess money grows on trees in Utopia!?!?!

  9. P.T.,

    You’re almost exactly right in the case of Scientology. Scientology supports a private literary agency for L. Ron Hubbard…and it’s just the kind of structure you describe. Of course, they’ve been caught artificially inflating the number of copies of Dianetics sold. (I looked at them in depth in my second book, The Devil is a Gentleman.)

    But thanks for the kind post…much appreciated.

  10. JC,

    I think I get caught up a bit on this paragraph:

    So why can’t planning for no plan also be a plan? Well, it sort of is – but it’s a plan that assumes chaos will produce a perfect order. Who emerges from the chaos? The elites. Whether it’s greed repackaged as laissez-faire or racism thinly disguised as exceptionalism, conservative “utopias” rationalize worlds where the better few get the most while the numerous many struggle with little. Anymore, who really believes this makes the world better?

    There are people who think this world would be better — those who believe they would come out on top. I think it gives rise to making utopia and dystopia two side of the same cliche (I don’t think that really makes sense, but I couldn’t think of something clever besides the actual cliche). As the world stands, there is an incredible difference between the have-mosts, haves, have-littles, and have-nots. In the end, the form of utopia that you’re (I think) pushing out of that sphere is really proposing is a have-all and a have-none world. As we live now, the haves do lose a little, whether just in guilt or in actual profit because of the have-nots (think of yeah, taxes, of global aid); whereas in this possible utopia, that little loss can be done away with and the winning elites can, for themselves, form a utopia…where the losers are exiled to dystopia.

  11. This is excellent. I feel compelled to point out, however, that your phrase “the numerous many” is far more forehead-slappingly redundant than any of the examples of bad writing you quote from Rand. I may in fact actually have slapped my forehead when I read it.

    Otherwise, you’ve nailed it.

  12. Mark and P.T.,

    Finally, some fair criticisms! This was the tricky paragraph…all I can say is the book is more carefully written than the post. Mark, I’d much prefer you slapped your knee than your forehead.

    Is it too late to suggest a rewrite? I was trying to suggest that at one point people believed these philosophies created the best possible world for all — now it’s just greed. Thus:

    “…where the better few get the most while the numerous struggle with little. Anymore, who really believes this is the best possible common good?”

    I don’t know…still clunky.

    But thanks, in any event…

  13. Mr. Hallman,

    Your father selected a paragraph that was NOT EDITED notes from Rand’s personal journal These were her musings, never intended for others to read (let alone be published). You’d be hard pressed to find writing problems in what she published.

    Second, you say “Atlas Shrugged is *known” ideas delivered in a “known” way.” But didn’t you say you never read any of it? So how would you know that.

    In fact, Atlas Shrugged’s ideas are mainly completely new–a morality of rational self-interest? where have you seen that before? And “in a known way” refers to the plot–Rand was very conscious of all the re-cycled plots in literature. Where would one find a plot based on the “men of the mind going on strike against an altruist-collectivist society”?

  14. Atlas Shrugged is self-consciously utopian, as a literary device. It is up to the reader to decide how close the plot is to reality.

    In your denigration of Atlas Shrugged, you appear to oppose those of us who believe society is better when “planning” is done by individuals, trading with each other in the market. If you think that some kind of planned society is preferable, you really should read more history.

    The Soviet Union was a planned society, as was the People’s Republic of China. A plan in these states is not just a binder with notes and statistics, it is a mandate with power of the police state behind it. And the results? Mass starvation in the Soviet Union and China at times, grinding poverty without end until – in China at least – elements of the market were restored.

    Can a planned society be a utopia? Only if your idea of utopia is the degradation of humanity to the level of these societies. It is pretty amazing to hear these arguments twenty years after the Berlin wall was torn down, and the whole world could see the contrast between West Germany with its market based mixed economy, and East Germany with its planned economy.

  15. Ayn Rand’s parents were dispropriated from during the Russian Revolution, so she spent the rest of her life trying to prove that it’s bad and wrong for anyone to work for the common good.

    A search of YouTube or Google for Ayn Rand fans will turn up a bunch of upper-middle class white kids who bitch and moan about immigrants and taxes. Meanwhile, these same kids eat at Applebees (where the food is prepared by immigrants, many without legal permission to work [I was a manger], drive on roads payed for by taxes, and attend universities that they might not be able to afford were it not for Uncle Sams redistribution of wealth.

    It’s well known amongst educated folk that Ayn Rand fans are basically retarded. It’s a crude way to put it, but it is so. It’s just not possible to take the word of someone who’s never had a job on the subjects of immigration or capitalism. So your daddy thought Reagan was the greatest president ever. Well, that just doesn’t mean much in my book, son.

  16. j.c. who ever called you an ‘elitest’ is wrong you are an elitest punk….2 days from now no one will know who you are and with good reason ….this cannot be said of the great AYN RAND….

    When a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club asked what the most influential book in the respondent’s life was, Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was the second most popular choice, after the Bible.[115] Readers polled in 1998 and 1999 by Modern Library placed four of her books on the 100 Best Novels list, with Atlas Shrugged taking the top position, while another, The Virtue of Selfishness, topped the 100 Best Nonfiction list. Books by other authors about Rand and her philosophy also appeared on the nonfiction list.[116] The validity of such lists has been disputed.[117] Freestar Media/Zogby polls conducted in 2007 found that around eight percent of American adults have read Atlas Shrugged.[118] Although Rand’s influence has been greatest in the United States, there has been international interest in her work.[119][120][121]

  17. I once embraced a nickname. “Hanky Panky”—it was an informal self-naming intended as a homage to Henry Miller. I was hoping it would help me get laid. No dice.

  18. J. C.,
    I’m wondering if you’ve come across a late 19th-century Populist politician named Ignatius Donnelly. His 1890 novel Caesar’s Column features a utopian community which in many ways would fit right in with those you describe, and the many parallels (some accurate, others a little tendentious) between the Populists and the Tea Party might provide additional material for your project.

  19. “It’s well known amongst educated folk that Ayn Rand fans are basically retarded.”

    “Educated folk” typically don’t make a practice out of calling people exploring their politics as “retarded.”

    Rand’s writings espouse a particular flavor of economic and social libertarianism, a particular locus on the various crossed spectra of politics. As with any other loci, it has strong points and it has drawbacks. Many people who explore politics go through a Rand phase because there are certainly some attractive elements of what she has to say. Most of them move on from there as they continue to grow in their understanding and beliefs – some do not.

    To refer to people who are exploring this locus as part of their intellectual growth as “retarded” speaks far more about you than it does about them.

  20. Andrew,

    No, I didn’t come across Caesar’s Column, sorry to say. But bear in mind that there are literally thousands of utopian novels — and most of my book (which will be out in a couple months), focuses five of its six chapters on positive, earnest, progressive visions.

    Thanks for the heads up, though…I’ll be sure to check it out.

  21. Dennis: The opposition to immigration actually goes against the grain of libertarian thought. You are right about the hypocrites in the Tea Party who oppose free movement of people across borders (free market). Right wing American expats don’t want other countries making it hard for them to come and go as they please. Only stay-at-home provincial Republicans are against free immigration…unless they are rightly saying that people cannot just come in and get welfare services…which is what most are saying.

    Tom: I am part of the Tea Party movement and it is like herding cats. Unfortunately, I know too many old women who feel it is the Social Conservative movement reborn…or at least they want to hijack the Tea Party to make it that way. Some men and women are fighting this with some success but you haven’t seen any major newspaper articles about such friction because the left actually fears a right that is NOT socially conservative.

    The left doesn’t want to recognize factions on the right that want to be reasonable, especially about sex.

    Meanwhile Sarah Palin brazenly calls herself a feminist…knowing that no Republican male will call her on her support for a lot of anti-male laws like alimony and excessive child support and automatic loss of children to a male in a divorce…elements that work against marriage in the long run because so many men are now refusing to marry while the state is aligned against them.

    I am doing my best to steer it in the right direction but the Tea Party movement is now “all over the place” and often resembles the socon GOP of the 80s that supported big tobacco, big asbestos and hormones in cattle.

    Rand Paul picked the worst possible example of “big government” when he said of the BP oil spill “accidents happen” and it was dumb the way he flailed about the Civil Rights Act. He must have thought it would be too controversial to say something like “the Civil Rights Act led to bizarre and unfair laws about workplace relationships where it was said that power differentials in romance should be illegal”.

    If he said the latter, he would pull at least half of Kentucky male Democrats to his side overnight.

    It is still amateur hour in the Tea Party movement. They should know that evolutionary biology makes males value state intervention less – especially when it affects them directly – and, thus, the Tea Party should specifically tailor their list of Nanny State injustices to specifically go for a massive majority of the 45% of Americans who vote while male.

    But, no, leading “thinkers” are saying how great it is that the Tea Party has chosen a “feminist” to be their leader.

  22. Ayn Rand was not politically correct but the GOP still is, unfortunately, and it causes the party platform to be hypocritical.

    A non-pc Republican Party could steal much of the Democrat male vote while keeping socons reasonably happy (but squirming). Here are two topics where the so-called “anti-government right” is being hypocritical now when they don’t have to be:

    Abortion? Sure, if men can also abdicate all responsibility for a pregnancy without the state intervening the way it now does big-time. Right now, a woman’s decision to get an abortion or not is, to the father, a decision on whether he will pay at least $215,000 in child support or help pay for a $500 procedure. Being forced by the state to pay huge sums every month for 18 years can be just as difficult to a single man as a woman being forced by the state to carry a fetus for a few months. Nobody suggests the state should directly force women not to abdicate her parenthood in another country, but a man who goes to another country to avoid child support payments would be a fugitive from the law.

    So the right can say “We don’t support government intervention in people’s private lives, but fair has to be fair – if you want the state to intervene with the father the state may intervene with the mother”. This would split the left, end the self righteousness of abortion advocates and cause them to compromise (most countries have settled this issue permanently with compromise and Germany and Holland now have the lowest abortion rates in the world).

    Gay Marriage? Sure, as long as the more popular concept of Polygamy is also recognized. All or nothing because fair is fair (14th Amendment). That argument would split the left and end the self righteousness of gay marriage advocates.

    In fact, it would kill the issue.

    I call this “political jujitsu” and the above thoughts fit the norm of libertarianism more than what one often hears from the current pro-state GOP.

    Meanwhile the right has got to get totally on the side of those who don’t want their children to be poisoned by toxic food and water (not to mention toxic furniture and carpeting). Murder is not a free market right.

  23. JC, I commend you for writing coherently about a topic that brings so many characters (men’s rights activists, for one) out of the woodwork with alarming speed!

  24. JC,

    Thanks for the response to my thoughts, it’s great seeing authors take advantage of the comments section after posting an essay on sites like this one.

    Thanks also for the information about your earlier book. I’m going to get that one, or the new one (probably the new one, though I have read Varieties of Religious Experience, I still have more background reading on utopia) at some point…maybe not a while though, as I’ve bought around fifty books over the past three weeks…though what’s the harm in a few more…

  25. I am old enough to remember the last time Ayn Rand had gone through a brief phase of popularity, in the early 80’s, the early years of Reagan’s presidency. She was still a live then, and making appearances on talk shows. She was really was as narcissistic as the quote above shows. I did read some of her work at the time, and was not impressed. Her novels are wooden, her characters little better than puppets and straw men, who she can manipulate. Rand was not a deep thinker, and not a good writer. That she is popular with some people is not really all that important. Her ideas are studied in other parts of the world? Her novels made it on the readers’ poll of the Modern Library 100? To paraphrase Dick Cheney, so what? What does that really prove? There are many other, much more important historical figures, for good and bad, whose ideas still resonate in the world. I believe that there are still guerilla groups whose ideas and actions are based on Mao’s. Hitler still has many defenders in the world. I think most of can agree that their ideas are toxic.

    Historically speaking, unfettered captialism has only been around about 200 years. Before that, much of what we now call the developed world was agricultural, and the economies more localized. Also, historically speaking, unfettered capitalism, as espouced by Rand and others, is a zero-sum game. It is based more on greed and competition, not fairness and equal exchange. There are only a few winners and many, many losers. The last ten years should be enough to show this, starting with the manipulations of the energy market in California by Enron. That there were black-outs and brown-outs did not in the least phase the traders–they were getting rich. If other people suffered, that was their problem. Unfortunately, this was the attitude through much of the 19th century as well. That is why the Progressive Era–starting in the 1890’s–started curbing some of the excess. The Sherman Anti-Trust Law, child labor laws, the right to form and join unions, unemployment insurance, etc, were all placed to help workers. Before that, all the rights were on the side of the industrialists and capitalists. If you were seriously hurt at work by defective equipment, it was your own fault, not the industrialists, not the capitalists. You were on your own. The same with losing your job. No unemployment insurance. The list can go on and on. There is much good history out there to support this. There is also much better fiction than Rand’s. You can actually start with someone like Elizabeth Gaskell, or Charles Dickens, and move on to the someone like Theodore Dreiser or Upton Sinclair. More recently, Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose–all are excellent portraits of unfettered capitalism.

    I’d like to quote from another writer, someone who is much more interesting than Rand will ever be. In the 1993 introduction to The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing wrote, “This year it is being read in a class in the University of Zimbabwe, at the request of black and white students, male and female. They were surprised, so said the teacher, a friend, that the talk of the young communists was idealistic and optimistic in those ancient days before they was a communist regime in Zimbabwe. They associated communisim and communists with self-seeking and opportunism. It had not occurred to them that communism had begun as a genuine dream for a better world.” I think that Lessing is on to something here. Communism later became quite twisted and tainted, but really was meant to usher in a better world. But Marx and Engels, and others, I believe, were rather blinded to the fact that human nature is what human nature is. So, in the end, Communism was just another utopian idea.
    And finally, for all those who dream of the halcyon days, of unfettered capitalism, I hate to tell you that they did not exist. People did not like it. That is why we have the laws on the books that we have today.

  26. Lydia — indeed! I wonder what will happen when the actual book comes out…

    P.T. — great, thanks a ton. I hope IN UTOPIA holds up against your extensive library!

    Michael — a thoughtful reaction, and much appreciated. You should be writing your own pieces like this one!

  27. Excellent work!

    I was one of the kids who ate up Atlas Shrugged in the early 80s, at the suggestion of many friends. Believe me, you are not missing anything J.C.

    At best, ( I’m being charitable here) Rand was a master of melodrama and a fairly literal Nietzsche-head. At worst ( google ‘Ayn Rand Hickman’ for some chilling reading) she was a sociopath. Her traumatic childhood left her unable to empathize with her fellow man. Her writing is full of a ‘people are chattel’ mentality that sickens me to this day.

    She spent her entire adult life lashing out at the Bolsheviks that took her father’s pharmacy, a course so self-destructive and embittered that it stained everything she touched.

    Her personal relationships led directly to our financial meltdown (See Alan Greenspan’s dumbfounded apology).

    She was an extreme atheist with the communist’s hatred of religious dogma, refusing to admit even a sliver of the practical good that most religions espouse.

    She ruined Nathaniel Branden, her former paramour, for taking on a new lover. The fact that she did not see the hypocrisy of this (she was married, as was he) points to her extreme narcissism and self absorption.

    Finally, she was a chain smoker and we all know that smokers are terrible people ;o).

  28. Thank you for adding all that, Cotton Mathers. I did know most of it about her already. If empathy and altruism ever existed in her, they were certainly stunted and blighted features. I was thinking of Alan Greenspan as well in my comments, but ran out of time to complete that part. I had a co-worker several years ago who hated Greenspan. At the time I didn’t understand why–but since the revelation that he knew Ayn Rand and believed in her philosophy, I can see why now. She was certainly very prescient–a very wise woman politically. But I did mention Enron’s manipulation of the energy markets in the early part of this decade–something which I believe that Rand would have approved of, as she smoked her cigarettes and pinned her diamond brooch–in the shape of a dollar sign–to her blouse.

    Earlier this spring I read Thomas Mallon’s review of the recent biography of Rand, printed in the New Yorker. It is a very good review, and he certainly is as insightful and dismissive of her philosophy as we are. I really enjoyed the ending, where Mallon mentions that Rand kept her royalties in a simple passbook savings account. I love the irony of that–the queen of unfettered capitalism knew nothing of investment instruments higher than simple savings accounts!

    And JC, thanks so much for the compliment! I really appreciate it.

  29. <>

    Well–if you’re going to begin a sentence with “Too” in this manner then you’re pretty much standing in a glass house. But then, each to his own standards.

  30. i.e. in this paragraph:

    I read this a couple times – you sort of have to; it’s terrible – and then I attacked it. “Incidentally, a sidelong observation:” is redundant, I said. So is “creative fiction writing.” Rand’s “if/then” lacks a “then,” and there’s no opportunity to challenge the premise that fiction makes the abstract concrete. Most would argue the opposite, if they even agreed to think about it in these terms. Ditto the suggestion that a thesis can or should be abstract. Too, the punctuation of the passage is more than bad – it’s actually attempting to beguile the reader. Heavy, complex thinking requires complicated punctuation, Rand wants us to think, so the presence of complicated punctuation must indicate that the meaning here is heavy and complex. Actually, it’s not.

  31. So let me get this straight. Your father the conservative-minded was open-minded enough to take up your reading suggestions, but you the “opem-minded” liberal could not stomach one page of Ayn Rand?

    As for your comments about free-markets being the idea of “no planning is a plan,” you’ve got it wrong. The idea behind free markets is that everybody makes their own plans in the ways that best suit them. The idea behind planning (i.e. leftist ideologies) is that one person or group makes a plan (government) and everybody else conforms.

    Your attack on the paragraph of Rand’s that you quote may be accurate, but considering that Atlas Shrugged sold half a million copies in the last year alone, and that she has sold literally millions of books, I sincerely doubt it. Rand must be offering SOMETHING unique to have sold that many copies of a thousand-page philosophy novel, that something undoubtedly being her passionate moral defense of free markets and individual rights.

  32. For more on the Rand Paul and Ayn Rand connection:

    Ayn Rand on the Libertarian Party:

    Q: Libertarians advocate the politics you advocate. So why are you opposed to the Libertarian Party? [FHF: “Egalitarianism and Inflation,” 1974]

    AR:They are not defenders of capitalism. They’re a group of publicity seekers who rush into politics prematurely, because they allegedly want to educate people through a political campaign, which can’t be done. Further, their leadership consists of men of every of persuasion, from religious conservatives to anarchists. Moreover, most of them are my enemies: they spend their time denouncing me, while plagiarizing my ideas. Now, I think it’s a bad beginning for an allegedly pro-capitalist party to start by stealing ideas.

    More here:


  33. Brianna, your second paragraph on free markets vs. planned markets was VERY well written–thank you for your input!

  34. I’m half with you and half not, J.C. You use the blanket statement conservative an awful lot when defining and critiquing the late Ayn Rand and Rand Paul, and there are a lot of “conservatives” (I myself don’t fit into any mold, but tags are the easiest way to quickly identify oneself, and so I’ll throw it out there) who don’t necessarily identify with either “Rand”. The “Rand’s” are both much more libertarian than most conservative minded Republicans, and while I abhor Utopian ideals and general philosophies suggesting such ideals (I consider myself much more of a realist), as many other Republicans and conservative minded people do, I don’t identify as much with the libertarian “fringe” element of my party. Unfortunately, that element has been more vocal than the moderate or otherwise non-conspiracy theory R’s, and that is the part of your post that I must agree with you. Many of the ideas are very much fringe. Ayn Rand actually had a part in the book “Capitalism: An Unknown Ideal” (good book as a whole, as far as philosophical thinking goes with “objective-ism”) that actually suggested child labor laws were unneeded. That is, in my own humble opinion, crazy. However, when it comes to the libertarian chant of “fiscal responsibility”, I have to agree with them, because it needs done. I would actually like to do a further critique of your assessments on my own site (I typed it in the link, you can just click on my name), but only with your permission. I can assure you it will be fair and non-confrontational. Feel free to email me.
    Travis Gearhart

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