The heroes of Ayn Rand’s fiction are great achievers, like Howard Roark, the superlative architect in The Fountainhead, and John Galt, the brilliant physicist-philosopher in Atlas Shrugged. Moreover, Galt is a revolutionary advocate for achievers: he leads a strike of the most productive people by convincing them to shrug off the burdens society has placed on them.
Because Rand portrays these high achievers as the Atlases who have carried the world and portrays the world as collapsing without them, she is often described as an elitist, as someone claiming that intelligent, talented people are a class unto themselves who should rule over their inferiors.
In his review of Atlas Shrugged Part 1, for example, James Kirkpatrick said, “Atlas Shrugged is one of the most forthright defenses of the aristocratic principle ever penned.” (“Selfishness, the Movie,” AlternativeRight, April 15, 2011) Kirkpatrick is a conservative; he meant the comment as praise. More often, the charge of elitism is hostile:
"Rand espoused an elitist, oligarchic philosophy that is both fundamentally anti-American and deeply at odds with the tea party's own ‘we the people’ cause…. Rand and her heroes hold ordinary people in great contempt.” (Vladimir Shlapentokh, “How is Elitist Ayn Rand a Tea Party Hero?” Christian Science Monitor, Oct. 14, 2010)
“Rand viewed the capitalists, not the workers, as the producers of all wealth, and the workers, not the capitalists, as useless parasites.” (Jonathan Chait, “War on the Weak,” Newsweek, April 10, 2011)
In calling Rand an “elitist,” these and other commentators interpret her as saying a) that her Atlases should rule over others; and/or b) that they are morally superior to others. Both interpretations are false. Rand made it perfectly clear that she rejected both of those positions.
Rand advocated laissez-faire capitalism, based on the rights of all individuals to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness, with a government limited to protecting those rights. No one—rich or poor, talented or not—would be able to enlist the government to control others through regulations or extract wealth through tax-funded subsidies. It would be a society of trade, which Rand considered the fundamental principle of justice.
A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. He does not treat men as masters or slaves, but as independent equals. He deals with men by means of a free, voluntary, unforced, uncoerced exchange—an exchange which benefits both parties by their own independent judgment. (“The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 34-35)
Leftist critics of the libertarian politics of trade claim that wealthy businesspeople wield uncontrolled power over their workers, by dictating wages; over consumers, by deciding what goods to offer at what prices; and over communities, by determining where to locate enterprises. On that premise, there is no difference between economic and political power. The only alternatives are “oligarchic” control by capitalists or “democratic” control of capitalists by government.
Rand explicitly rejected the equation of economic with political power. Economic power is “the power to produce and to trade what one has produced,” whereas political power rests on the government’s use of force.
Wealth, in a free market, is achieved by a free, general, “democratic” vote—by the sales and the purchases of every individual who takes part in the economic life of the country…. No one has the power to decide for others or to substitute his judgment for theirs….
… economic power is exercised by means of a positive, by offering men a reward, an incentive, a payment, a value; political power is exercised by means of a negative, by the threat of punishment, injury, imprisonment, destruction. (“America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business,” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.)
This difference is on display throughout Atlas Shrugged. Business heroes Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart have positive relationships with their employees, customers, and vendors—relationships of mutual benefit and mutual respect. But Hank and Dagny are not versed in the manipulative, underhanded ways of the power brokers like Orren Boyle and James Taggart, whom she characterized as “the aristocracy of pull.” Rand would have had equal contempt for the Boyles and Taggarts today, the crony capitalists who seek wealth through government connections.
Critics may challenge Rand‘s distinction between economic and political power, but to read their conflation of these types into their interpretation of her ideas, as if she never addressed the issue, is intellectually incompetent or irresponsible.
What about the second claim, that Rand considered her Atlases—the most talented and productive people—as morally superior to the herd of common folk? This too is a distortion.
It is not entirely without foundation. Rand is often associated with Nietzsche, and specifically his concept of the “overman” as a moral exemplar, and she did indeed flirt with his views in her early works. Even in The Fountainhead, where she repudiated the Nietzschean quest for power as a lack of independence, many of the characters wrestle with their fear of the herd instinct, the mass man resentful of excellence. And throughout her fiction, she used the symbols of aristocracy to highlight excellence of character, refinement, and talent.
As an artist, moreover, Rand was interested in portraying the highest reaches of human potential. In Atlas Shrugged, she was specifically interested in opposing the altruist doctrine that the greater one’s ability, the greater one’s obligation to serve. That is the principle the strikers oppose and the reason why the strikers recruit those of the highest ability. Yet Atlas has many worthy characters of lesser ability, from Dagny’s assistant Eddie Willers to the bum who tells Dagny about what happened at the Twentieth Century Motors plant. And the same is true in her other novels and in her commentaries on the politics of her day. In an article on the 1972 presidential election, to cite one of many examples, she said,
America is still the country of self-made men, which means: the country of the middle class—the most productive and exploited group in any modern society. (“Don't Let It Go—Part II,” The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. 1, No. 5 December 6, 1971)
Nevertheless, in Atlas Shrugged and her philosophical writings, Rand drew a clear distinction between moral virtue and degree of talent. The moral principles embodied in her heroes are universal; anyone who practices them, at any level of ability, is a moral exemplar. To take an important virtue in her code, productiveness:
“Productive work” . . . means the consciously chosen pursuit of a productive career, in any line of rational endeavor, great or modest, on any level of ability. It is not the degree of a man's ability nor the scale of his work that is ethically relevant here, but the fullest and most purposeful use of his mind. (“The Objectivist Ethics,” emphasis added)
If one values productive achievement, of course, one must value its highest expressions. It is not that the great producers are morally better, but they are better at what they do, and that fact entitles them to honor and admiration. In economic terms, such differences in ability work to the benefit of all. Those at the top of the pyramid of ability confer enormous benefits on those at lower levels, far in excess of any material wealth they gain. Those with the ability to discover new knowledge, invent new technology, and form new enterprises have vastly increased the productivity, and thus the compensation, of everyone else. In the article cited earlier, Jonathan Chait describes Rand’s “pyramid of ability” thesis as “inverted Marxism.” That’s true. The thesis is Rand’s rejection of Marx’s exploitation theory, according to which laborers produce all value and managers and capitalists are parasites. But this does not mean, as Chait assumes, that she thought all workers are parasites. On the contrary, as she has Galt say, in describing the pyramid,
This is mutual trade to mutual advantage; the interests of the mind are one, no matter what the degree of intelligence, among men who desire to work and don’t seek or expect the unearned. (Atlas Shrugged, p. 979)
Rand envisioned a dynamic society where each person is free go as far as he can and is responsible for living the life that he chooses, on his own terms. It’s a vision of individualism, achievement, and freedom. It is not a vision of class supremacy nor of class equality, but of the harmony of interests among individuals. It isn’t for the privileged, but for the productive. It isn’t against the poor, but against the irrational, the slothful, the envious, and the power-seeking—whatever their origin or social status.
David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.