When Mitt Romney embraced the national budget plan laid out by Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan during the GOP primary, he was elevating to the ultimate stage the economic and moral philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Rand, who was born at the dawn of the last century in Russia, and who passed away in 1982, has already built a remarkable influence over American conservatives.
Long-time Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan was a devotee. When he took his first national post, during the Ford administration, Rand witnessed the ceremony in the Oval Office. “Alan is my disciple,” she declared. “He’s my man in Washington.”
In the decades since, novels like Atlas Shrugged and the Fountainhead have been elevated into the canon of right-wing literature.
The notion that the wealthy and productive hold near-exclusive title to an active and virtuous life of mind holds an obvious appeal, at least in some circles.
Rand argued that rational self-interest is the exclusive measure of morality. If a man succeeds and earns a great deal of money, he has created his own standard of goodness.
No need to thank a divine creator. No need to think about how others may have enabled your success. No need to think about the welfare of others in the society.
Paul Ryan, in a recent interview with the New Yorker, describes how Rand’s philosophy changed his politics:
“I said, ‘Wow, I’ve got to check out this economics thing.’ What I liked about her novels was their devastating indictment of the fatal conceit of socialism, of too much government.” He dived into Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman.
In a 2005 speech to a group of Rand devotees called the Atlas Society, Ryan said that Rand was required reading for his office staff and interns.
“The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,” he told the group. “The fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.”
But there is a problem for conservatives.
A central narrative of the modern right-wing movement is that religious values lie at the core of Western civilization. They widely ascribe the horrors of Nazism and communism to the rise of atheism.
Conservatives also generally attribute the modern, legal practice of abortion to the ‘cuture of death’ that has risen with modern secularism.
“I am against God for the reason that I don’t want to destroy reason. How can I be against God? I am against those who conceived that idea. It gives man permission to function irrationally, to accept something above and outside the power of their reason….I don’t approve of religion.”
In her embrace of individualism — objectivism, she called it — Rand also concluded that abortion is a “moral right.”
An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn).
Abortion is a moral right—which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?
It’s worth noting that Rand’s views were viewed, at first, with deep hostility on the right. William F. Buckley, perhaps the greatest conservative mind of the last century, called Atlas Shrugged “a thousand pages of ideological fabulism.”
Buckley published a review of the novel in the National Review — written by famous conservative Whittaker Chamber — who described the book’s philosophy as dangerous.
Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!”
Chamber’s view is, if nothing else, consistent with the conservative notion that secular humanism leads inevitably to the diminution of the value of the individual.
Modern conservatives tend to sidestep this dilemma at the heart of their movement, acknowledging publicly their fondness for Rand’s philosophy while disavowing her loathing of Christianity.
But anyone reading her work closely, or listening honestly to Rand’s own exegesis of her writing, will see that objectivism begins with the principle that there is no god. There is no good, she insists, no value, beyond the individual’s self-interest and reason.
Yes, socialist collectivism is one of Rand’s enemies — that’s the one conservatives latch on to — but the second pillar that props up all her thought is disdain for faith.
The irony, of course, is that modern conservatives rail constantly against European secularists who are changing our society from within, purportedly undermining the “real America.”
In 2012, Rand’s atheistic-humanist view of the world — born squarely out of the European tradition — is hardwired, for better or worse, into the spending plan espoused by Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney.