In my experience, people who've read Ayn Rand's books either love them or hate them. I'm one of the few who fall somewhere in between. When I first read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged in the 1980s, I was blown away. Those books portray the power of the free individual in ways I had never thought about before. Since then, I've grown more critical of Rand's outlook because it doesn't include the human needs we have for grace, love, faith, or any form of social compact. Yet I still believe firmly that her books deserve attention, and in that regard, Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made provides important and meaningful insight into the evolution of Rand's world view.
The Fountainhead is a stunning evocation of the individual and what he can achieve when unhindered by government or society. Howard Roark is an architect who cares nothing about the world's approval; his only concerns are his integrity and the perfection of his designs. What strikes me as still relevant is its central insight—that it isn't "collective action" that makes this nation prosperous and secure; it's the initiative and creativity of the individual. The novel's "second-handers," as Rand called them—the opportunistic Peter Keating, who appropriates Roark's architectural talent for his own purposes, and Ellsworth Toohey, the journalist who doesn't know what to write until he knows what people want to hear—symbolize a mindset that's sadly familiar today.
The Fountainhead makes that parasitic existence look contemptible. Near the end of the book, Roark is on trial for demolishing a building he had designed—he had insisted it be built exactly as drawn, but when some bureaucrats alter the structure, Roark feels he has no choice but to dynamite it. Representing himself, Roark pleads, in characteristically Randian terms: "I do not recognize anyone's right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need … I recognize no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom and to take no part in a slave society." Cold though they sound, these words contain two basic truths. First, an individual can achieve great things without governmental benevolence, and second, one man has no right to another's achievement. These are lessons we should all remember today, when each week is seemingly marked by another government program designed to fix society.
After finishing The Fountainhead, Rand spent 14 years building a movement around what she called "objectivism" and composing the massive novel that would become Atlas Shrugged (1957). "Who is John Galt?" is the first line of Rand's 1,000-page book, and by the end it's clear she wants everyone to think, and act, as if they were him. Galt had been, as we discover only as the plot unfolds, head engineer at the Twentieth Century Motor Company, which had produced a motor powered by static electricity. His superiors, however, had decided to restructure the company along Marxist or "collectivist" lines, and Galt had left the company. He leads an effort to get the nation's greatest business leaders to go on a kind of strike. One by one, they disappear, making their way to a hidden valley in Colorado and leaving the now increasingly collectivist U.S. government to try and preserve the country on its own, with no help from these giants of industry. What happens, of course, is that the government collapses, and Galt emerges to reorder society along strictly free-market lines. Granted, the plot is farfetched, but that doesn't mean it's not enormously influential. Another new book, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns, examines Rand's natural attraction for conservatives—Alan Greenspan was a member of the Saturday-night salon she held in her New York apartment (though William F. Buckley called objectivism "stillborn" in a column he wrote when she died). All told, Atlas has sold more than 6 million copies since it was published just over 50 years ago.
Why? I think at a fundamental level many people recognize Rand's essential truth—government doesn't know best. Those in power in Washington—or indeed in Columbia, S.C.—often lead themselves to believe that our prosperity depends on their wisdom. It doesn't. The prosperity and opportunity we enjoy comes ultimately from the creative energies of the country's businessmen, entrepreneurs, investors, marketers, and inventors. The longer it takes this country to reawaken to this reality, the worse we—and in turn, our children's standard of living—will be.
When the economy took a nosedive a year ago—a series of events that arguably began when the government-sponsored corporations Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac went broke—many Americans, myself included, watched in disbelief as members of Congress placed blame on everyone and everything but government. This wasn't new in 2008. It's an act we've seen over and over since the beginning of the New Deal in 1933. For that reason, I think, those passages in Atlas Shrugged foreshadow what might happen to our country if there is no change in direction. As Rand shows in her book, when the government is deprived of the free market's best minds, it staggers toward collapse.
Ironically, as Heller's biography makes clear, while Rand's philosophy was based on the individual's absolute freedom, Rand herself exercised a dictatorial control over her followers. She would denounce anyone who expressed opinions even slightly diverging from her own. Her chief acolyte (and lover), Nathaniel Branden, once circulated a list of rules for Rand's inner circle to follow; one of them read, "Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world"; another said, "Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man's life on earth." For the leader of a group dedicated to human freedom, Rand didn't allow much of it around her.
There is one more major flaw in Rand's thinking. She believed that man is perfectible—a view she shared with the Soviet collectivists she hated. The geniuses and industrial titans who retire to Galt's hidden valley create a perfect society based on reason and pure individualism; and Galt himself, in the 57-page speech near the book's end, explicitly denies the existence of original sin. The idea that man is perfectible has been disproved by 10,000 years of history. Men and women are imperfect, or "fallen," which is why I believe there is a role for limited government in making sure that my rights end where yours begin. There is a role for a limited government in thwarting man's more selfish instincts that might limit the freedoms or opportunities of others. But we need to remember the primacy of the individual, of his or her ability to make the world a better place. Over the past year, we've seen Washington try to solve all our problems—chiefly by borrowing billions from future generations—to little effect. In that sense, this is a very good time for a Rand resurgence. She's more relevant than ever.