Ayn Rand has been a major inspiration for the Tea Party movement, which has swept a new generation of Republicans and self-described conservatives into power. Rand herself is often called “right-wing.” And her most famous defender, Alan Greenspan, was a consultant to Republicans and was nominated to chair the Fed by President Reagan.
A recent academic analysis
agrees, arguing that “Atlas Shrugged
... provides aid and comfort to contemporary conservatives who see themselves as sacrificial victims of evil men and evil systems whose immoral incompetency is driving society to the edge of the abyss.”
’s economic vision may resonate on the right, but the truth is, Ayn Rand
was not conservative.
Intellectually, conservatives have been foes of Rand’s since before the 1950s.
Her philosophy, Objectivism
, advocates reason, individualism, and personal happiness. Conservatives are more likely to favor faith, tradition, and duty as core values. Politically, Objectivism is classically liberal or libertarian
. It expresses a world view associated with the Enlightenment. Ayn Rand
fundamentally rejected the conservative-liberal distinction in culture.
On the level of concrete policy, Rand defended a woman’s right to abortion and was a four-square supporter of freedom of speech (both “liberal” causes). She also attacked racism ( a “liberal” bugbear) as grossly collectivist. However, she rejected affirmative action policies (the favored “liberal” solution) for exactly the same reason.
Conservatism is a cultural and political tendency that sees the past as importantly superior to the present, that respects tradition, and that is cautious about cultural change. In the contemporary Anglophone world, conservatives stand for traditional morality (family values), religious tradition (mostly Christianity), and an emphasis on private initiative over government bureaucracy. Insofar as the conservative movement has been the home of free-market reform efforts since the 1960s at least, classical liberals, such as Objectivists, have taken part in conservative or right-wing political coalitions aimed at economic policy.
But intellectually, the Conservatives have been foes of Rand’s since the 1950s and earlier. William F. Buckley’s National Review
greeted the publication of Atlas Shrugged
in the most scathing terms. Indeed, from its title (“Big Sister Is Watching You
”) to its takeaway message that Rand was little better than a Nazi, Whittaker Chambers’s review seems an exercise in willfully misinterpreting Rand’s individualist message. For her part, Ayn Rand
gave as good as she got, kicking off her second career as a public intellectual with speeches like “Conservatism: An Obituary” (delivered at Princeton in 1960).
In “Conservatism, An Obituary,” Rand charged that the underlying philosophical values of the conservatives vitiated their attempts to promote market capitalism.
If the “conservatives” do not stand for capitalism, they stand for and are nothing: they have no goal, no direction, no political principles, no social ideals, no intellectual values, no leadership to offer anyone.
Yet capitalism is what the “conservatives” dare not advocate or defend. They are paralyzed by the profound conflict between capitalism and the moral code which dominates our culture: the morality of altruism. (Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, p. 195 paperback)
There is much that is right in American tradition. America does
stand for liberty and individual freedom in its basic ideas. America is
the country of the self-made man. There is much that is right about conservatism, too: its ethic of personal responsibility, for instance, or its respect for the Constitution. But these values can only be defended on the basis of reason and the facts. We can accept no substitute. Ayn Rand
was right about that. And that’s why she wasn’t really right-wing.
> More Myths About Ayn Rand's Ideas
William R Thomas has written on topics in politics, ethics, and epistemology, and has spoken internationally on the theory of individual rights and Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. His works include Radical for Capitalism, and, as editor, The Literary Art of Ayn Rand. He is the director of programs for The Atlas Society. Thomas is currently a lecturer in the Department of Economics of the University at Albany.