Ayn Rand supported a laissez-faire capitalist economic system and defended the morality of making a profit through private business. The heroes of her novels include business owners and business executives. Her villains include government bureaucrats and Communist apparatchiks. She wrote an essay entitled “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business.” All this has lead many critics to claim that Rand held that big business was right at all times on all issues.
They think that Rand defended all wealthy people, and that she was a booster for all businesses.For example, in one of his many screeds attacking Rand in The New Republic, Jonathan Chait describes Rand’s social analysis as “the ideological pity of the rich for the oppression that they suffer as a class.” In place of health care for all, Rand advocated “WealthCare” for “the rich.” (September 14, 2009 issue)
The release of the film Atlas Shrugged Part 1 has occasioned fresh blasts of the claim that Rand is just plain pro-rich folks. A classic of this ilk came from Jonathan Kim in The Huffington Post on April 15th, 2011:
Atlas Shrugged is the founding text that brings us the revolutionary, inspiring ideas that helping people is dumb, poor people are goblin leeches, corporations are always right, and fabulously wealthy CEOs are the smartest, hardest working, most awesome people in the world -- and the government just won't give them a fair shake.
One only has to read Ayn Rand to see how wrong both Chait and Kim are.
Wealthy villains abound in Rand's novels, from the clucking, mindless socialites of The Fountainhead to the James Taggart-Orren Boyle industrialist cartel featured center stage in Atlas Shrugged Part 1. Howard Roark, hero of The Fountainhead, is from no distinguished background, spends much of his life in poverty, and has, for one of his best friends, a plain-spoken electrician. In Atlas Shrugged, the primary villains against whom the heroic businesspeople struggle are other businesspeople!
In fact, there is so much evidence that Rand does not support the wealthy as a class that it is striking that critics like Chait and Kim fail to take note of it. Their analysis depends on hating the rich as a group, so they impose this group-think on Rand in reverse.
Rand never thought of getting rich as an end-in-itself, a point she made perfectly plain in Francisco d’Anconia’s magisterial speech on money in Atlas Shrugged :
[M]oney is only a tool. It will take you wherever you wish, but it will not replace you as the driver. It will give you the means for the satisfaction of your desires, but it will not provide you with desires.” (Atlas Shrugged, Part Two, Chapter II, “The Aristocracy of Pull,” p. 383)
For Rand, a flourishing, happy life is the goal that matters. Wealth isn’t happiness, and it alone doesn’t make one moral. Money is a medium of exchange that is only worth what others will willingly provide in exchange for it. It is worthless without the goods that others provide in trade. In that context, and only in that context, money allows one to store the value of one’s work and use it to pursue one’s goals in life. So money cannot itself be the ultimate goal. Having money is worthless if one does not know how to spend it well. For that, again, one needs more fundamental goals of one’s own.
But Ayn Rand did not view money or wealth as a basic evil. She argued that money earned in the free market, in a system of production and trade, is a badge of honor. It represents the value others have freely placed on the work one is doing.
In both her novels and her non-fiction, Rand repeatedly underlines the difference between those who earn their wealth by production and trade, and those whose wealth is undeserved. She savagely attacks the “looters” who extract wealth by force—often the force of preferential laws, taxes, and regulations. And she has nothing but contempt for the “moochers,” the dependents—including worthless heirs—who feed off the largess of the productive, providing no real value in return. Rand wanted the productive to unite, whatever their social class. Rand opposed economic policies that penalized the productive. She thought a free economy would in time destroy the old wealthy class and would create a more just and dynamic society.
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand sought to portray businessmen, industrialists, and financiers as creators of value. She saw the best of them as heroic creators on a par with the great artists and scientists—opposing the common view of businessmen as short-sighted ignoramuses and wealth-obsessed manipulators. She defended businessmen she regarded as productive against injustices, such as the antitrust laws that she dissected in “America’s Persecuted Minority.” In support of this mission, Rand sponsored the republishing of the business-centered novel Calumet “K” by Merwin-Webster. She made her view of business and her reasons for choosing the book both clear in the “Introduction” she wrote for that volume:
Calumet "K" captures the atmosphere—the sense of life—of a free country: what it was like, what it demanded of men, and, indirectly, by whom and why it would be hated. The story is neither pro-business nor pro-labor, but pro-individual, i.e., pro-human ability: the enemies Bannon has to fight are a clique of Wall Street speculators, on the one hand, and a corrupt labor leader, on the other. (The Objectivist, October 1967, “Introduction To Calumet 'K'”, 343)
In her “Notes on the History of American Free Enterprise,” Rand surveyed the history of the railroads in the 19th century. She saw it as a classic case in which many confuse the political operators attracted by subsidies with the independent, productive businesspeople who flourish in the free market. In particular, she drew a sharp contrast between the Big Four railroads that were built (and overbuilt) with government subsidies, leading to bankruptcies and financial panics, and James J. Hill’s financially sound (and unsubsidized) Great Northern Railway. Her overall view of business is plain here:
The issue is not between pro-business controls and pro-labor controls, but between controls and freedom. It is not the Big Four against the welfare state, but the Big Four and the welfare state on one side—against J. J. Hill and every honest worker on the other. Government control of the economy, no matter in whose behalf, has been the source of all the evils in our industrial history—and the solution is laissez-faire capitalism, i.e., the abolition of any and all forms of government intervention in production and trade, the separation of State and Economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of Church and State. (Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, “Notes On The History Of American Free Enterprise”, 109)
William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.