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Ayn Rand's Stamp on American Culture

Ayn Rand's Stamp on American Culture

10 Mins
March 28, 2011

Although Ayn Rand was born a century ago, and although she died a generation ago, her philosophy of Objectivism is among the most vital influences on contemporary American culture—and, increasingly, on contemporary global culture. That is all the more impressive in light of the rabid opposition that Rand’s ideas initially drew from both the Right and Left.

During her own lifetime, moreover, hostility to Rand’s ideas seemed only to intensify as her detractors confronted Rand’s uncompromising and—often—undiplomatic responses to criticism. But truth will out, and with the passage of time, Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism has proved its enduring insightfulness, thereby winning admiration even from many former skeptics. FLASHBACK TO THE FIFTIES

One mark of truly influential individuals is that they make it difficult to imagine the conditions that they faced, so thoroughly have they helped to change them. In 1957, the year that Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged was published, the Right that had opposed the New Deal was essentially dead. It was the era of Eisenhower and “moderate Republicanism.” Rand complained that when Nikita Khrushchev was visiting the United States and proclaiming the virtues of “scientific” socialism, all that the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., could say about America’s moral superiority to the murderous Soviet regime was that America was founded on a faith in God. Administration officials did not then speak of “the evil empire.”

During those unpromising times, a collection of strange bedfellows from disparate philosophies was starting to gel into the modern conservative movement, and, later, into the libertarian movement. Leading the conservatives were the followers of Russell Kirk, who believed that a good society is one that helps restrain the unbridled ego through traditions and religions, especially Christianity. They saw families and small communities as the arenas in which moral virtues are exercised, and they opposed a large federal government with broad powers because they thought it likely to destroy those small-scale arenas. But, for the same reason, they viewed local government’s restrictions on freedom as something largely benign.

Other thinkers, such as Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman, favored individual liberty and limited government at all levels, because they understood that government control destroys individual entrepreneurial initiative and thus social prosperity. But while these critics offered insights into the destructive nature of government and the wealth-creating power of free individuals, they missed the essential moral foundation and justification for freedom.

Then came Atlas Shrugged .


The cultural impact of Ayn Rand, which began in 1943 with The Fountainhead and burst forth after the publication of Atlas, can be attributed in large part to the ways in which she differed from others on the Right. Not least is the fact she presented her philosophy in the form of powerful novels. Understanding that the test of a philosophy’s truth is its relation to reality and life, Rand allowed readers to see what her ideas meant in practice. Through Howard Roark, the hero of The Fountainhead, Rand showed that individualism in the soul produces happiness in life, even when external success is elusive. Through the novel’s antihero, Peter Keating, she showed that putting the ideas and needs of others first—collectivism in the soul—does not produce the holy contentment that religions promise; it produces only emptiness and self-loathing. In Atlas Shrugged, her masterpiece, Rand looked both wider and deeper—wider, to the consequences that individualism and collectivism have for societies as well as individuals; deeper, to the very foundations of individualism and collectivism.

In Atlas, Rand celebrated achievement and, above all, the productive achievements of businessmen. She declared that these wealth creators, exemplified especially by America’s industrialists, are giants who hold the world on their shoulders. But though she depicted industrialists as benefactors to whom we owe our prosperity, Rand did not pronounce them heroes because they altruistically held the world on their shoulders. The heroes of her epic novel—who produced railroads, steel, coal, and new super-motors—were heroes because they loved and were committed to their own work.

This devotion to purely commercial work, so long deplored by philosophers as merely mundane, was, in Rand’s vision, a manifestation of the very best that lies within human beings.

Perhaps the most famous of Rand’s innovations was her defense of self-interest. Contrary to millennia of philosophy, she declared that a commitment to one’s self-interest is a cardinal moral virtue. In Atlas Shrugged, one chapter was entitled “The Utopia of Greed.” Later she would produce a collection of essays called The Virtue of Selfishness. Sometimes, it seemed, Rand was daring critics to misunderstand her—and they did, eagerly. Depicting the Randian hero as a blind pleasure-seeker, her critics ignored her insistence, repeated tirelessly, that one’s true self-interest is a rational and long-range self-interest, not a thoughtless, whim-driven lurching from one superficial desire to another. The mind, she said—the mind which makes us human, which distinguishes us from the brutes—allows us to step back, to reflect on possible paths, and to discover which of them will lead us to greatness in our professions; to flourishing in our health and wealth; and to profound happiness in our families, friendships, and loves. For Rand, reason was not dry and soulless. She said: “Think deeply to feel deeply.”

Rand’s innovative defense of capitalism is sometimes looked upon as less original than her work in other areas. As noted, other authors in her day were defending capitalism; a few were even defending pure laissez-faire capitalism. Of these last, however, most were economists who either avoided moral arguments entirely or relied upon utilitarianism. Very few thinkers joined Rand in basing an uncompromising defense of laissez-faire capitalism on a moral philosophy of personal freedom—a philosophy of individual rights to life, liberty, and property that harkened back to the Founding Fathers. And no one of her era, or any other era, provided the Enlightenment philosophy of individual rights with an Enlightenment moral foundation, one that did not rely on invoking God. She, and only she, integrated rationality, self-interest, political freedom, and capitalism into a comprehensive, secular world-view.


Many critics have tried to downplay Rand’s importance and influence. William F. Buckley, for example, claims that he and his magazine National Review purged Rand from the conservative movement—never mind that Rand never considered herself to be a conservative. In 2003 he published a novel, supposedly based on facts, of how the Objectivist movement was marginalized and consigned to irrelevance in the American political scene and society. The book was fiction through and through. (See Robert Bidinotto’s March 2003 review, “Getting It Wrong”.)

That Rand’s ideas have indeed become part of our culture is now indisputable. Long after her death, her books continue to sell hundreds of thousands of copies every year. Huge posters of the cover of Atlas Shrugged hang in major bookstores. And a 1992 Library of Congress survey found Atlas to be the most influential book in America after the Bible.

Far more surprising, however, is the additional indisputable fact that Rand has changed the American political scene. In no small measure because of her work, the political policies she advocated are no longer considered as radical as they were in her own day. For example, before most free market advocates imagined it possible, Rand envisioned shutting down entire government agencies, especially those that had to do with controlling the economy. Today, the oldest regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission, has ceased to exist, along with most government regulation of the airline and trucking industries. Or again: One of Rand’s first targets was the Federal Communications Commission and its Fairness Doctrine; today, the Doctrine is history and the FCC is under constant attack. Or yet again: Antitrust law was another of Rand’s early targets, and today, because of think tanks inspired by Rand, virtually every major antitrust lawsuit draws forth vocal opposition, and in-depth research at these organizations aims to eliminate antitrust laws altogether.

While most literate Americans probably have some idea of Rand’s philosophy, activists and thinkers on the political Right simply must be familiar with her work, because so many of their number have been strongly influenced by Rand.

Reason magazine was founded by several individuals heavily influenced by Ayn Rand, including Bob Poole, a regulatory expert who later became known as “the father of the privatization movement.” Cato Institute founders Edward Crane and David Boaz are also Rand admirers. Crane is an Atlas Society adviser, and Cato, in conjunction with the Center, co-sponsored a celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s founder, Fred Smith, has a well-thumbed copy of Atlas, with a hundred yellow Post-It notes marking his favorite passages. Another Rand fan is John Goodman, founder of National Center for Policy Analysis, a leader in Social Security privatization. José Piñera, who helped privatize Chile’s retirement system in the 1980s, is yet another fan. Joe Bast, founder of the Heartland Institute in Illinois, numbers Rand as one of his inspirations.

Steve Moore is well known as founder of the Club for Growth (an organization supporting free-market political candidates) and he is now a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. When profiled by the Washington Post, he was asked, “Which book most influenced your early years?” His answer: Atlas Shrugged. Howard Dickman, a long-time senior editor at the Reader’s Digest who also served a stint as the Assistant Chairman for Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities, is an Objectivist who recently joined Moore on the editorial staff at the Journal. John Fund, formerly of the Journal’s editorial page and now a contributor to the paper’s online site, has spoken at Objectivist events. Columnist Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune wrote a glowing tribute marking Rand’s centenary. John Tierney of the New York Times editorial page also has attended Objectivist events.

Though he is not an Objectivist, conservative Morton Blackwell—founder and head of the Leadership Institute, which has trained thousands of political activists— recommends Atlas as an essential book. In the Portland, Oregon, offices of the Cascade Institute, one finds Rand’s books on the shelves of Steve Buckstein. Attorney Scott Bullock of the Institute for Justice, who argued on behalf of property owners before the U.S. Supreme Court in the infamous eminent domain case, Kelo vs. City of New London, is a long-time Rand admirer; so are fellow IJers Chip Mellor and Dana Berliner.

Many government officials, both elected and appointed, are admirers of Rand. The most famous, of course, is recently retired Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, an early associate and lifelong friend of Rand’s who wrote and lectured under her auspices during the 1960s. Today, the highest-ranking government official who has been influenced by Ayn Rand may be Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. In a November 1987 Reason interview, he said that “I tend really be partial to Ayn Rand, and to The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.” He can quote his favorite parts of Atlas from memory, has his interns watch the movie version of The Fountainhead, and recalls that, in his early Washington days, he saw the movie version of We the Living at the old Biograph Theater.

Congressman Edward Royce (Republican of California) says that the three thinkers who influenced him early on were F.A. Hayek, H.L. Mencken, and Ayn Rand; Royce has spoken at events hosted by The Atlas Society, and he wrote an essay on the occasion of TOC’s centenary tribute to Rand. Congressman Ron Paul (Republican of Texas) read into the Congressional Record an appreciation of Rand on the occasion of her one-hundredth birthday. Congressman Paul Ryan (Republican of Wisconsin) has said, “I grew up on Ayn Rand.” Today, he observes that fights on Capitol Hill are between individualism and collectivism, and that one “can’t find another thinker or writer who did a better job describing and laying out the moral case for capitalism” than Rand. Reportedly, he requires his staff and interns to read Atlas Shrugged.

Former Congressman Chris Cox (Republican of California) wrote a favorable review of Letters of Ayn Rand for the New York Times, and when he was nominated to be Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, critics made note of his interest in Rand. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (Republican of California) and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey are among the other politicians who have invoked Rand’s ideas. Former Congressman Bob Barr, a conservative, sees Rand as one of the few individuals who really understood the importance of personal privacy. Former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III collects first editions of Rand’s books, and I was told by a staffer that Congressman Tom Feeney (Republican of Florida) wanted The Fountainhead movie for Christmas. Colorado Governor Bill Owens says it was Rand who turned him to more free-market politics.

Most of these officials do not consider themselves Objectivists, and most certainly disagree with Rand’s atheism. But all have taken something from her thinking, and it informs their own thinking about politics.

Rand’s influence does not stop at America’s borders. For example, Eduardo Marty, head of Junior Achievement in Argentina, has been a long-time Rand admirer and helped facilitate new translations of her works into Spanish. Andrei Illarionov, until recently a top economic adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, keeps a Russian language version of Atlas in his office. Interest in Rand is thriving in India, where major figures in its “Bollywood” film industry are Rand fans.

Even critics of freedom, personal responsibility, and a rational culture demonstrate Rand’s cultural influence by using her name as an epithet. For example, The Incredibles was movie that portrayed superheroes forced out of business by those who envied them for being better than others, in strength and virtue. Egalitarian critics who hated this message complained that the film’s theme was “Randian.”

When critics of the movie Batman Begins said that the script might have been written by Ayn Rand and Mussolini, they showed little knowledge of Mussolini, but they did understand the essence of Rand: the plot made clear that good and evil exist and that evil must be destroyed. What is more, contrary to Hollywood’s usual portrayal of wealthy individuals, the film showed that a billionaire can be an instrument of justice. When the Washington Post ran story on the political implications of the movie, called “Batman’s Laissez-Faire-Weather Friends,” the reporter mentioned Ayn Rand (and The Atlas Society) and discussed the phenomenon of libertarian movies with the Cato Institute’s David Boaz.


To be sure, the spread of Rand’s ideas has not always run smooth. Even among Rand’s closest followers, there were personal estrangements, and some of her acolytes have been more anxious that students of her philosophy should agree with it on all points than that they should think for themselves, as Rand advocated. Outsiders, seeing such behavior, have accused Objectivism of being a cult. In his book Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, looked at the early years of the movement and some of its current manifestations and called it the unlikeliest cult of all. He himself, however, has read and admired Rand’s works and her defense of human reason, independent thinking, and freedom.

After Ayn Rand’s death, the project of advancing Objectivism was taken in hand by Ed Snider, then founder and principal owner of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, now chairman of Comcast Spectacor, which owns the Flyers, the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team, and other sports and entertainment ventures. Snider, who had known Rand personally, pulled together the personnel, business expertise, and financial commitments needed to launched the Ayn Rand Institute in 1985. The institute’s first senior research fellow was David Kelley.

Less than a decade later, however, Snider pulled his support from ARI as the result of his unhappy dealings with its first chairman. Within five years, David Kelley had also disassociated himself from ARI, over philosophical issues. Kelley maintained that we cannot assume, as ARI’s top brass did, that most individuals who disagree with Objectivism are malicious. Absent evidence of ill will, Kelley said, Objectivists should approach other people with tolerance and assume that their mistakes are honest ones. To provide a forum for Objectivists who sought an open exchange of ideas, rather than the parroting of orthodoxy, Kelley founded the Institute for Objectivist Studies, once the Objectivist Center and now The Atlas Society. Snider soon became a supporter and a Trustee.

Other individuals, and a proliferation of groups and publications, have added to this open movement. Chris Sciabarra, author of the book Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, also edits the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. A group of professional philosophers within the American Philosophical Association, the Ayn Rand Society, hosts panels and produces scholarly papers. Online, one can find a host of Objectivist Web sites, blogs, and discussion groups. One of the most sophisticated is the Rebirth of Reason site, founded by Joe Rowlands. The movement is even developing its own social institutions. For example, Joshua Zader started the Atlasphere, a Web site which encourages its thousands of members to post personal profiles for other members to peruse—thereby becoming an online dating center for the Objectivist movement!


As Atlas Shrugged approaches its half-century anniversary, the philosophical vision that Rand set forth in that magisterial work has demonstrated not just staying power but an ever growing appeal. And no wonder.

Individuals looking around at today’s culture and government see realms that are riven with conflict, highly politicized, and just plain nasty. This war of all against all, Rand understood, is the inevitable outcome when people do not respect individual rights and individual decision-making. But she also understood—and she said—that it doesn’t have to be this way. She taught that the fundamental interests of individuals do not conflict when people respect the right of others to pursue their own lives according to their own thinking, when they are content to take pride in what they have garnered through voluntary exchange, and when they do not seek the gain possession of others’ property through legalized force. Against the backdrop of today’s myriad conflicts—from the academic wars of political correctness to the lobby wars of K Street—such a vision of human benevolence and social peace will continue to exercise a wide appeal.

Entrepreneurs are also frustrated today as they see their earnings drained away through “progressive” taxation, their creative visions stymied by heavy-handed government regulations, and their productive labors portrayed in the entertainment media as the work of villains who make themselves rich by stealing from the poor. This persecution, Rand showed, is made possible only through the sanction of its victims, through the failure of wealth creators to assert their right to prosper through their own efforts. Most especially, it continues through the unwillingness of businessmen to reject their opponents’ key ethical premise: that giving money to others is morally superior to earning money for oneself. Against the backdrop of a state that grows ever larger and a chorus of muckrakers that grows ever louder, Rand’s call for self-assertion by businessmen will continue to attract ever more adherents.

But most of all, Ayn Rand will continue to appeal to idealistic young people, who have always been the greatest source of her audience. Hearing in their classrooms that truth is a social construct, that reason is sophistry, that morality is service to the public interest, that politics is group conflict—and that art is either rage, mockery, or emotional self-expression—young people will continue to turn to Ayn Rand. They will be drawn to her vision of a rational, benevolent, heroic, and prosperous society, where all can guiltlessly pursue their own dreams and aims, seeking to realize the best within, while being entertained, educated, enriched, enlightened, and inspired by the achievements of others.

If Ayn Rand’s ideas have endured against fierce opposition and have influenced our culture and politics, it is because those ideas, taken together, convey her bright vision of an Atlas society composed of rational, responsible individualists. And because of that vision, Ayn Rand will continue to leave her indelible stamp on our future.

Edward Hudgins
About the author:
Edward Hudgins

Edward Hudgins, former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society, is the founder of the Human Achievement Alliance and can be reached at ehudgins@humanachievementalliance.org.

Ideas and Ideologies