In a newly published interview , President Obama says Ayn Rand is for teens:
Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we’d pick up. Then, as we get older, we realize that a world in which we’re only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else, in which we’re considering the entire project of developing ourselves as more important than our relationships to other people and making sure that everybody else has opportunity – that that’s a pretty narrow vision. It’s not one that, I think, describes what’s best in America. Unfortunately, it does seem as if sometimes that vision of a “you’re on your own” society has consumed a big chunk of the Republican Party.
Let’s go through that bit by bit.
The “entire project of developing ourselves” is indeed more important than anything we do for others or any relationship we can have with others. “ To say ‘I love you,’ ” Rand wrote, “one must first know how to say the ‘I.’” It’s the person you are—the self you’ve developed—who does anything you do with others. And while relationships with others are an important part of a good life, ultimately those relationships are valuable to you because they enrich your life.
Rand’s vision of liberty and the pursuit of happiness is indeed what’s best in America. There’s no Statue of Brotherhood in New York Harbor, and no rational person sailed there in order to be sacrificed to the less well-off by some government program. Nor did people volunteer to fight America’s wars, beginning with the Revolution , in order to sacrifice themselves for society; they sought to establish and preserve the political principles that make society valuable for every person in it. People built America and came to America in order to achieve good lives for themselves—lives where they could think for themselves, produce for themselves, and achieve happiness for themselves.
The President is wrong, too, in saying that Rand’s vision is “a ‘you’re on your own’ society.” It’s a vision of a society where people are free to pursue their own values, helping others when they find value in doing so--a society where they do help others, in a wide variety of ways, because they find vast material values through commerce, deep personal values in close friendships, and a special value in admiring and supporting achievements that reflect values they share. And that means it’s a society where, when someone benefits you, you know he was taking an opportunity to enrich his life, not sacrificing his own happiness to you.
If Obama did read Rand as a teenager, he failed to understand her words. It's a myth that selfishness means, or that Rand advocated, not caring about others or seeking to sacrifice their interests for one’s own good. No one’s good is achieved by sacrifices or predation, and everyone's good is destroyed by a society based on sacrifice and predation. These are key lessons taught by Rand's philosophy and dramatized in her fiction . (The President is also wrong if he thinks Rand’s vision is that of the Republican Party.)
But the President is right about one thing. Many people do pick up Ayn Rand as teenagers. If you’re the sort of teenager who wants an uplifting moral vision, a vision of joy and achievement rather than suffering and sacrifice—if you’re the sort of teenager who sees value in your own life and resents any adult who tries to stifle that value or enslave it to a purpose you don’t share—if you have the intellectual self-confidence to engage seriously with ideas about life and how best to live it, and still more importantly the fundamental self-respect that tells you that the project of shaping your life and character is an important one and that you must take charge of it—then Ayn Rand is for you. And if you can preserve those values throughout your life, then when you are old, Ayn Rand will still be for you .
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