Ayn Rand’s star is on the rise. From the rowdy Chicago trading floor, to burgeoning tea parties and intense town hall confrontations, to pundits on cable TV, Rand’s ideas have galvanized tens of thousands of disgruntled and resolute citizens, who see in her epic novel Atlas Shrugged prophetic predictions of what currently ails America.
Last October, popular blogger “Dr. Helen” Smith started a buzz when she began discussing how friends of hers were planning to “go Galt”—i.e., to deprive the government of revenue by saying “No” to personal opportunities to earn more income. “Going Galt” was conceived as a response to government policies that are contemptuous of property rights and punitive towards achievement. Its model is none other than the hero of Atlas Shrugged
, John Galt, who went on strike by dropping out of society, shrugging off his productivity, and in the act, shedding the parasites who lived off of his achievements. Smith’s call to “go Galt” embodies what many Americans thought about the stimulus plan: it punished the responsible for the sake of the irresponsible.
Rand's ideas have galvanized tens of thousands of disgruntled citizens.
This popular indignation was galvanized by trader and commentator Rick Santelli’s now famous rabble-rousing rant on the Chicago trading floor. Santelli, who describes himself as an “Ayn Rand
-er”, asked whether citizens wanted to “subsidize losers' mortgages” and he called for a tea party in Chicago.
Sales of Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged
tripled in the spring. Through the spring and the summer, protestors and analysts were inspired by Rand’s rejection of overweening government and her moral defense of freedom. Suddenly, pundits on cable TV were citing the “going Galt” phenomenon. “The producers, the creators of wealth…are going on strike,” Michelle Malkin opined on Fox News. “The Ayn Rand
-ers need to take this country back,” said another pundit on CNBC. Hundreds of news stories appeared citing Rand, her philosophy of Objectivism
, and organizations and individuals that promote it. Even comedians like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart featured segments on Rand and her ideas.
“Tea Party” protests sprang up all around the country to resist the Democrats’ plans for higher taxes. References to Rand were in the mix of protest placards and slogans. Many organizations and people, including groups working with The Atlas Society and The Ayn Rand
Institute, weighed in. Objectivists and Rand fans, including libertarian magic star Penn Jillette and TAS’s own Ed Hudgins, were there at the protests, speaking and getting Rand messages on camera.
Across the country, fired-up citizens packed town hall meetings on health care, asking blunt and searing questions that made visibly nervous Congressmen sweat under the lights. Even as the Democrats continue to show their cards as the party of socialism, millions of Americans are becoming more aware of Rand as a principled defender of what is quintessentially American—individualism, self-authorship, achievement, and freedom.
As the popular tumult rose, some notable breakthroughs were being made on the intellectual front as well. There had already been a growing stream of publications about Rand and Objectivism
over the past decade with Objectivist scholars Robert Mayhew and Tara Smith leading the pack in recent years. But 2009 is notable for several publications that are capping off the year.
The premier academic philosophy reference on the internet, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online, is adding a new section on Ayn Rand
written by philosophy professors (and long-time Atlas Society collaborators) Neera Kapur Badhwar and Roderick Long. The Encyclopedia’s inclusion of Rand, in an article written by knowledgeable experts, signals recognition of Rand as an important thinker with a perspective that merits analysis.
Meanwhile, two new landmark biographies of Rand have been published to widespread acclaim: Ayn Rand and the World She Made
, by Anne Heller, as well as The Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right
, by Jennifer Burns, assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia.
Both works are serious, thoroughly researched studies. And both represent a watershed in the cultural acceptance of Rand. Both are published by major publishing houses, signaling awareness that Rand expertise is valuable. And in Burns’s case, her work on Rand, in this book and related papers, constitutes the lion’s share of her research as a junior faculty member. If Burns achieves tenure on this basis, it opens the door to research on Rand as an accepted academic career field (at least, in history), which would be a major development for the novelist who was never accepted by the academic mainstream and who rejected it herself.
These intellectual breakthrough publications are the culmination of decades of work by many individuals to develop and promote Objectivism. But they also symbolize the resurgence of Ayn Rand’s cultural status after the cultural roller-coaster ride of the last 12 months.
Rand's Deeper Message
Those who return to Rand and read her novels or her non-fiction, will get far, far more than a strident defense of the free market. They will find there a cultural analysis—indeed, a philosophical system—founded on taking seriously just two ideas:
1) Reality is the bottom line. “Existence exists”, as Rand put it.
2) One has the moral right to live and pursue happiness. “A single choice: to live,” Rand wrote.
These are the issues that our culture will ultimately rise and fall on. From them—from an unblinking willingness to face the truth, and from an intransigent desire to really live—the rest of Rand’s moral message follows.
Rand defined what is quintessentially American—individualism, self-authorship, achievement, and freedom.
Rand readers will find that Rand is for individual responsibility. Hand-outs to failing firms and irresponsible debtors receive only scorn from her and her heroes. But individual responsibility is right because each person’s happiness is his or her own. It is an iron principle because the facts of how people live connect logically, inexorably, to how much we can benefit from dealing with them. Is it wrong for people to lose their homes from a foreclosure, or is it right to earn one’s own way and take responsibility for one’s own expenses and debts?
Rand readers will find that Rand is for a free insurance market. But this is not because of merely the pragmatic calculation that, over time, free markets will be more efficient. While that may be true, the deeper message is a moral message about how human beings can deal with each other to mutual advantage. That is by trade: by unforced, voluntary, exchange premised on benefit for all parties involved. That is the win-win way of living together. But to live by win-win, you cannot insist that doctors work without setting the terms of their own labor. You cannot insist that we seize money from some people (“the rich”), against their will, to confer a benefit on others (“the uninsured”), who haven’t earned it. So the deeper question is not whether we ought to have an open health insurance market, but whether we are parasites or not—whether we can live by trade, or not.
In Ayn Rand
, readers find a writer who knows the market and how industrial society functions, and who thinks that capitalism is an ideal we ought to strive to uphold, if we value our own lives and happiness. The idealism of Rand’s heroes goes all the way down, to the root, in Rand’s two basic ideas. It is this rational fundamentalism that makes Rand the most striking antidote to the new Democratic Socialism. The left is riding high on ideals of shared sacrifice, egalitarianism, and environmentalism. Only Objectivism
rejects these root and branch. It rejects any kind of human sacrifice. It recognizes how we are equal (in our rights and as moral agents) and how we are not (in our abilities or achievements). And it puts each of us at the center of moral concerns, rather than raising up an anti-human ideal of nature without man.
It appears that the Rand Reaction has stirred up in the hearts of many the attachment to independence, autonomy, and personal responsibility that is the deep vein of gold in American culture.
This renaissance of interest in Rand is richly deserved. Really, it’s about time.
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.